Yes to Noh

Reaching back to the ultra-romantic past, director Yukio Ninagawa's work looks strikingly new

Amid all the barrage balloons of jargon sent up around the Lincoln Center Festival by self-appointed explainers of the avant-garde, the arrival of the Ninagawa Company from Tokyo was something of a relief. Nobody can claim that director Yukio Ninagawa's work is avant-garde. If anything, Ninagawa's is an ultra-traditional theater, achieving effects that often seem startlingly fresh by reaching back before realism; his tradition is ultra-romantic, acknowledging realism but always pushing beyond it to put something emotionally larger onstage.

Though his material here consisted of two small, taut chamber plays by Yukio Mishima, Ninagawa clearly thinks on a big, expansive scale: His huge, full-stage settings (by Tsukasa Nakagoshi) dominated Rose Theater's lofty auditorium, evoking not modernism's bare scaffoldings but the grandly old-fashioned elaborateness of Max Reinhardt. That Ninagawa used these settings, like his actors, in non-realistic and unexpected ways, only means that he interprets his material vigorously, with no theoretical nonsense attached.

The plays, in any case, demand Ninagawa's conventional yet freewheeling treatment. Like his novels and his public persona, Mishima's plays, much less well-known here, are obstinately, calculatedly hard to pin down. Cat's cradles of verbiage woven around a core of violence, they simultaneously utilize and deride both Western stage conventions and traditional Japanese forms, as well as the ideas attached to both.

A series that stretches from his early writing to the '60s, Mishima's "modern Noh plays" were written as part of a movement intended both to revive Japanese theater after the war, and to refresh it with the main currents of post-war Western thought. Only a few steps away from religious ritual, traditional Noh is a form in which the protagonist is usually forced at the climax to confront some trauma from his or her past, often in the form of a ghost or demon; the confrontation brings, if not transcendence, at least a renewed awareness of the Buddhist road toward eternal peace.

Mishima, in adapting the traditional stories to modern contexts, reverses both their tone and their process. The poetic dignity of the telling becomes cold, blunt modern prose, with poetry, of a feverish kind, reserved for the emotional peaks. The serene traditional settings become banal or seedy contemporary scenes, while the action includes little peace and no transcendence; the dull pain of modern existence just goes on, sometimes leaving injured souls or dead bodies in its wake.

Sotoba Komachi, the more familiar of the two source plays, is the story of a princess turned nun, once a heartless beauty, who finds enlightenment by facing down the ghost of the man who betrayed her. In Mishima's version, she is an ancient homeless crone hunting stray cigarette butts in a lovers-lane park. When a young poet expresses interest in her story, she lures him into reliving the moment of her betrayal, with lethal results. Mishima turns the parable of Buddhist renunciation into a Strindbergian sexual duel to the death. (His play may have inspired Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, which adds a racial charge to the conflict.)

Yoroboshi, not previously performed here, is built on the matrix of an even older story, the conflict between two sets of parents over a child born to one pair and raised by the other, as in the parable of King Solomon or the Chinese play The Chalk Circle, of which Brecht made notable use. But in Mishima's version, the child, now nearly full-grown, is a boy who has been blinded in the air raid during which he was separated from his birth parents. Emotionally apathetic and nihilistic, he derisively repudiates the claims of both couples. When the sympathetic female judge hearing the case coaxes him into reliving the trauma at the root of his negativity, he reveals that to him, the world will always be the flaming hell that he saw just before losing his sight. As he describes this agony, the luridly red sunset pours in through the courtroom windows, linking the boy, for Japanese spectators, to the defeatist hero of the nation's quintessen tial post-war novel, Osamu Dazai's The Setting Sun—the title phrase of which Mishima plays on repeatedly in the text. Here, too, there is no transcendence; the only possible halt to the situation is death.

Pulling the play one step further, Ninagawa supplied the latter on top of the script's gentler ending, overlapping the hero's return to silent apathy with a flamboyant sound-and-light evocation of Mishima's own last moments, when he attempted to lead his private army in a coup d'etat, was surrounded by Japanese defense forces, and committed seppuku. The soundtrack of this event, familiar to Japanese audiences somewhat the way the Zapruder film is to Americans, reverberated through the hall. It wasn't Ninagawa's only startling effect. As in the climactic duel of his Macbeth, flowers rained on the stage throughout Sotoba Komachi(red camellias this time), hitting the floor with audible plock s. Also again, he drenched the action in a familiar piece of Western music, in Sotoba Komachi the Rachmaninoff Vocalise. The old woman, at first seen only as a shapeless, bent mass, was played by a man (as in traditional Noh); her vision of the past came, and went, with a sweeping scenic transformation. The acting all through was powerful and lucid, with only occasional hints of the factitious. The whole thing was a lesson in the energy that a well-wrought piece of theater can provoke, with no avant-garde posing or theoretical jargon to block its way.

 
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