A Japanese woman in gray body paint, a Carthaginian helmet, and a tail suffers a rhythmic beating from a Caucasian man bleeding from the mouth. Each time his hand strikes her back, she growls a name: Kosovo, Indo-Pakistan, Palestine. Behind the pair, haloed in light, four figures perched on stools execute an excruciatingly unhurried choreography. The elements of this scene—the arresting stage picture—the repetitive gestures, the agonizing slowness, the trite thematics (violence, it’s a bad, bad thing)—inform the whole of Bye-Bye: The New Primitive, the latest work from the Kaitaisha Theater Company (Japan Society, closed).
Artistic director Shinjin Shimizu has written of his disgust with Japan’s Theater of Life and his desire to create a piece that “is a theater of the ‘body,’ and is filled with the ‘desire for destruction.’ In that way, it is a ‘Theater of Death.'” (It’s a fortunate thing for Shimizu that Polish director Tadeusz Kantor, who coined the term, has been in the grave practicing his own very personal Theater of Death for a decade now and can’t sue for copyright infringement.) Shimizu opposes his theater against life’s violence, but his dramatic language is inextricably steeped in that violence. The near-wordless New Primitive concerns the brutality of the 20th century as visited upon the body. The performance leaves the actors pummeled, pounded, slapped, dragged, bound, and bloodied.
Much could be made of the efficacy of critiquing violence by violence, but in this instance it doesn’t make for much theater. While few would argue with the antiwar message of the play, or the skill of the actors and occasional Artaudian felicity of Shimuzu’s staging, they might complain about the hour and 40 minute running time of the piece. New Primitive‘s ideas and images could be rendered quickly, but the scenes play out so slowly and repetitively as to arrive at banality. Perhaps, Shimizu takes the banality of violence as his ultimate argument, but it’s a seat-squirmingly nasty and dull argument to watch enacted.
A stretch in the play’s middle in which the glacial pacing melts, filmed explosions leap across the back wall, bright lights shine, actors writhe furiously, and loud electronic music assaults the ear isn’t dull at all. These moments—clear, cruel, alive—last only a short time, but mark the performance’s zenith. If only the rest of New Primitive would climb up a few more steps on the evolutionary ladder toward them.