It’s well known that the Japanese can do horror. See, for instance, the widely imitated “J-horror” cinema; the lurid brand of pop-metaphysical unease particular to writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto; the lively tradition of gruesome supernatural theater; and the unsurpassed national demonology (Monstropedia lists 149 Japanese spirits, at least 84 of them sinister—no other culture gets even half that.) So it appeared promising that Tokyo’s Company East was going for full-on macabre in their arty take on Hamlet, an East-West fusion incorporating both theater and dance.
With the empty stage at La MaMa’s Annex theater draped in black curtains, the lighting seemingly casting the most wraithlike shadows possible, a figure emerges partway through a side-curtain. It just stands there, a half-materialized being, for nearly 30 seconds, to strangely chilling effect. It’s when the figure (presumably Francisco) actually gets on stage—along with Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio—that the production’s problems begin.
After the atmospheric opening, the sighting of King Hamlet turns into chaos, all frightened shouting and running around, the white-bandaged ghost standing by solemnly as the actor-dancers playing the Danish guards turn in agitated circles. This frenetic tenor characterizes a good part of Kenji Kawarasaki’s production, which portrays terror too often through the quantity of its expression. If the ghost lacks aura, well, he appears later in triplicate to underscore the escalating haunting. All of this is set to an occasionally comic score of abrasive noise and echoes, backed by a projector screen flashing helpful cues in English, like “The Ghost of King Hamlet.”
Even without these, though, you could generally figure out what you’re watching. Loyal Shakespeare, though, this is not. The production probably hits most of the crucial points—minus the absent Polonius, who might have made a great Japanese courtier—and in the right order. But it’s hard to keep track of the story arc, because there’s little dramatic build or attention given to pacing: The scenes are essentially detached riffs on elements of the script. This could be a decent idea, but it doesn’t help in a work that’s somewhat unfocused to begin with. Hiroshi Jin, who plays Prince Hamlet, is hardly a complete novice at Elizabethan theater; his mostly cross-gendered international credits include the role of Lady Macbeth. But his performance doesn’t inspire. He gets Hamlet’s melancholy and earnest existential confusion, but leaves out any hint of the edginess and dark wit that make the protagonist great.
Company East’s theatrical mode clearly owes something to traditional Noh and Kabuki, and even at points to Butoh. The mélange, though, doesn’t quite jive here. The performers do not manage the controlled mystique of Noh, nor do they go sufficiently over-the-top to attain the near-parodic raucousness of the most entertaining Kabuki. In performances of Butoh, its semi-nude, white-painted practitioners achieve something jittery, inhuman, truly freakish. A Butoh Hamlet would be something to see, but the inklings of it here are generally disappointing. Present also are Western ballet moves, which the performers execute with athleticism. If ballet’s what you’re after, though, Lincoln Center might be better.
The production does have its moments, and even some welcome additions, including a black-clad phalanx of martial-artist-looking fellows who turn grim pirouettes before the final violent confrontation. Ophelia (Yoko Tomabechi) plays her giggly derangement well, and returns at the end as a phantom to dance creepily amid the carnage. When Claudius (Sho Tohno), resplendent in a broad-shouldered gown, lifts his dagger slowly with his back to the audience, the tableau suggests what could have been: an artful channeling of the evil rife in Shakespeare’s masterpiece.