‘The Lady Aoi’ and ‘Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai’: Noh meets noir, kabuki goes to college

Imago Theater’s production of Mishima’s play is a tight, nuanced production involving ancient roots and modern sensibility 

In 2012’s Black LizardImago Theatre director Jerry Mouawad winningly merged the “physical theatre” of his famous teacher, French actor, mime and teacher Jacques Lecoq, with another stylized theatrical form, kabuki. Despite their differences, the combination worked because both forms tell stories through movement, gesture and design more than dialogue and narrative.

The source for that colorful spoof was a Yukio Mishima play drawn from a 1930s Japanese pulp novel that was in turn inspired by American film noir and pulp fiction. As I wrote then, what distinguished that show wasn’t the pulpy story so much as “the clever, layered way the creators combine evocative non-realistic action, movement, scenic and sound design.”

'The Lady Aoi' runs through March 27 at Portland's Imago Theatre. Composite graphic: David Deide.

‘The Lady Aoi’ runs through March 27 at Portland’s Imago Theatre. Composite graphic: David Deide.

That goes double for Mouawad’s second Japanese-tinged production. The Lady Aoi shares with its predecessor a Mishima source (his 1954 modern noh play by that title, which in turn was inspired by a character from the classic millennium-old Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji); dramaturgy by Portland State University Japanese studies professor Lawrence Kominz, who specializes in the study and staging of Japanese theater; touches of humor; the excellent composer John Berendzen; Mouawad’s inimitable scenic sensibility; and even a leading man, the redoubtable Matt DiBiasio.

Yet though both succeed on the basis of their production rather than their respective stories, the two shows deliver quite different emotional impacts. If the colorful, eventful Black Lizard veered close to 1960s Batman (around the time Mishima wrote his version), the less convoluted, more austere, and ultimately more chilling Lady Aoi is closer to Dark Knight Batman, or even more, early ‘60s Twilight Zone, a haunting modern ghost story that’s a triumph of subtlety and atmosphere.

Minimal Means, Maximal Impact

The simple plot draws on a Japanese folk tradition that roughly means “living ghosts”: spirits of living people (rather than shades of the dead), who haunt obsessively jealous people. In this case, the victim, Hikaru (played by Matt DiBiasio), is visiting his hospitalized and unresponsive wife in the mid-1950s. Her exact malady is never stated, though a nurse (Emily Welch) obliquely refers to some kind of “sexual complex.” Hikaru’s jealously triggers the rising of his own living ghost, an old lover of Hikaru’s, Mrs. Yasuko Rokujo (Jeannie Rogers), whose spirit arrives at the clinic, and drama ensues.

Translating the ritualistic nature of noh and Mishima’s melodramatic (at least to these 21st century Western ears, in translation) dialogue into superficially realistic modern settings risks pretentiousness. Mouawad’s production (which cites American and Belgian, respectively avant garde theater directors Richard Foreman and Ivo Van Hove as influences) occasionally gently winks at such unintentionally pulpy lines through intentionally overdramatic lighting or sound cues, while the actors play them straight, eliciting audience chuckles. It’s a tricky balance to avoid turning Lady Aoi into What’s Up Tiger Lily? This knowing production is an affectionate take, not a parody or even the satire of Black Lizard.

Jeannie Rogers, Matthew DiBiasio in Imago's 'Lady Aoi.' Photo: Kyle Delamarter.

Jeannie Rogers, Matthew DiBiasio in Imago’s ‘Lady Aoi.’ Photo: Kyle Delamarter.

Few theater artists are as adept at creating surprising, self contained worlds through minimal means (movement, light, sound) as Mouawad. Here, every element of production — from acting to lighting to sound — contributes, with everyone involved hitting the dozens of cues bristling throughout the hour-long performance. Props are minimal (a Robert Wilson-like sail makes a brief but poignant appearance), but Jeff Forbes’s exceptionally evocative lighting design does a lot of the work that props and costumes would otherwise accomplish. Used to shift moods, perspective, even time sequences (a flashback to Hikaru’s earlier relationship Mrs. Rokujo), it’s almost cinematic, adding texture and variety to such a claustrophobic setting.

Mouawad and Kyle Delamarter’s portentous sound design, with music ranging from exquisitely subtle and atmospheric sound loops to over-the-top drum pounding (courtesy of veteran Portland theater composer John Berendzen, Greg Ives, and percussionist Blade Rogers, who performs live), expertly heightens and underlines (or undermines) moods, comments on action and contributes to the otherworldly atmosphere. The two antagonists wore vocal mikes. I wondered why, as they were unnecessary for volume in Imago’s intimate space, before realizing that Mouawad used them to aurally italicize dialogue; sometimes the actors spoke unamplified (when addressing each other in the “real” world) sometimes miked (when supernatural elements emerged) which must have been difficult for them to modulate, as the miking could go on and off in the space of a few sentences. Except for a momentary technical glitch, it made an unusual and extremely effective expressive device.

The four actors fully embody the production’s noir-meets-noh aesthetic. DiBiasio, as usual, displays a solid grasp of not-quite-realistic expression while still constructing a consistent character in the seemingly gruff Hikaru (whose vulnerability gradually reveals itself in flashbacks), while Jeannie Rogers’ nuanced vocal artistry complements her expressive physical acting. While each protagonist’s unique gestures create individual personae, they share a tightly controlled gestural language, and it has a Japanese accent: mannered, ritualistic, a little exaggerated, almost but not quite cartoonish, and just right for this thin, noir-ish tale.

Gwendolyn Duffy in 'The Lady Aoi.' Photo: John Rudoff.

Gwendolyn Duffy in ‘The Lady Aoi.’ Photo: John Rudoff.

Lying mostly comatose in a hospital bed, the titular Lady (Gwendolyn Duffy) intermittently expresses herself almost entirely in spasms, occasionally erupting in convulsions, accompanied by the suddenly spotlit Rogers’ explosive drumming — a kind of percussive visual punctuation to dramatic moments. Such exquisitely subtle and evocative details make Lady Aoi’s diverse elements add up to much more than their sum, or their source.

Ronins’ Retribution

There’s noh (direct) comparison between Imago’s noh-show and Kominz’s other recent project, since the 1748 Japanese play The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai is a kabuki classic. And in many ways, 47 Samurai’s epic magnitude (dozens of cast and crew, elaborate props and sumptuous costumes; a septet of Geza musicians with several vocal parts, shamisen, and percussion; puppetry; a multi-location story; three-plus-hour run time, historically informed authenticity etc.) is the opposite of Lady Aoi’s claustrophobic austerity.

ChushinguraPR03 even smallerYet it’s a treat to divine the connections between the old stylized, ritualistic nature of kabuki and Mouawad’s modern take on Japanese drama. For example, Lady Aoi’s drum kit introduction and underscoring echoed Samurai’s analogous use of traditional Japanese percussion.

This latest in a series of Kominz Japanese theater productions — the first production by a North American university, according to Kominz — ran only two weekends at PSU’s big Lincoln Performance Hall and most performances sold out. The show is like an introductory course in Japanese theater, from the introduction and requisite cellphone-shushing warning by a snarky puppet (echoing the play’s origins in bunraku puppet theater) to the chanted narration (expertly delivered by Kominz and PSU student Joy Adler), to the encouragement of audience participation (shouting at dramatic moments like WWF fans) and of course Kabuki acting and costumes.

Like the other PSU Japanese theater productions (though darker and a bit more austere than those I’ve seen), this one really transports us to an another, ancient world — actually worlds, as this production invokes, for good historical reasons explained in the program, both the 14th and 18th centuries. Based on actual events, the simple vendetta plot (callous courtier insults another, lower-status nobleman, who strikes him, precipitating a series of back and forth reprisals and culminating in a Leone/Tarantino-esque revenge- and ritual-suicide-fest by the titular ronin) proceeds at a stately pace through palaces, countrysides, an Edo-era brothel, and a temple, arriving at eventual vindication, and yet more suicides.

As in a traditional tea ceremony, what action there is proceeds glacially, and the protracted choreographed movement and spare dialogue (stilted and mostly plot advancing rather than character defining, to our ears) means that when something does happen, whether subtle tilt of the head or (thrilling) choreographed stage combat, it’s usually momentous. Heavily costumed and painted, the PSU students turn in convincing, sometimes commanding performances, but as with Lady Aoi, the power lies less in the action than in the immersive universe conjured by sound, movement, light, and design. As today’s visionary theater artists, like Mouawad, demonstrate, this ancient stage drama, conceived a world and a millennium away from 21st century Oregon, has plenty to offer today’s theater.

The Lady Aoi runs through March 27 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th St
Portland. Tickets available at the door, at ticketswest.com, or by calling: Imago Theatre 503.231.9581 or TicketsWest 503.224.8499.

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