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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006


Provocative plays in the quiet

Special to The Japan Times

Spending as much time as I do in theaters guarantees that I am treated to some brilliant productions, others that are dire, and plenty in between. However, ones truly astonishing and most "provocative" (to use a key word in drama criticism these days), are naturally not thick on the ground.

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"Sakura Shibuki (Cherry-Blossom Spray)" by newcomer Keishi Nagatsuka (top); the cast of "Soylent Green" (above), with Midori Kiuchi at right COURTESY OF SEPT/COURTESY OF t.p.t (above)

Overall, in Japanese theater, 2006 has been rather quiet, with few sensational newcomers, big-budget festivals or newsy happenings. However, there have been several masterpieces, most of them not flashy, but steady and solid -- while being provocative at the same time.

The direction of English playwright Martin McDonagh's "Lonesome West" by Shintaro Mori, a rising talent at the EN theater company, promised great things. Veteran dramatist Hisashi Inoue cleverly presented the atmosphere of mass wartime fanaticism with his new play "Yume no Kasabuta (Scabs of a Dream)." Yukio Ninagawa and Sho Ryuzanji, both struck out in the same new direction, working with amateur senior citizens or senior dramatists and production people as actors.

Altogether, it may not have been a vintage year, but it's been an entertaining one, for sure, and one that points toward an exciting future for Japan's stages. Here are my picks for 2006.

Best play: "Soylent Green ist Menschenfleisch, sagt es allen weiter! (Soylent Green is people, tell everybody!)" by Theater Project Tokyo (t.p.t).

Provocative and postmodern, "Soylent Green" was like a bolt from the blue when t.p.t staged it in March and April. Written and directed by the 44-year-old German dramatist Rene Pollesch, this gem of deconstructed theater written in 2003 may have created a new genre. Lacking a recognizable plot, it incorporates video projections from a cameraman roaming the stage and a "secret" room where actors were to be found enjoying leisure activities, sometimes illicit ones. The script itself is a series of fragmented monologues and dialogues between three women and a man about sex, love and money and more, and if there is a thread throughout, it is the constant profanity. I'd swear nonetheless that Pollesch is discovering an exciting way forward that will leave audiences buzzing with ideas and awestruck by spare but thrilling presentation. As Pollesch has said, this play aims to "analyze the actors themselves -- and our own society."

Best director: Keralino Sandloviich for "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Uwasa no Otoko (Everybody's Talkin')."

Sandloviich is renowned for his productivity. In 2006 he wrote and staged (to mixed reviews) the 3-hour-long "Labour M," directed works by Edward Albee, Woody Allen and Saburo Fukushima and restaged two of his own plays.

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Juli Eckersley on the set of "The Window" (left); Akira Emoto in "Endgame" COURTESY OF SPACE 107/COURTESY OF SEPT

The 43-year-old director shone brightest in June in his first-ever staging of a foreign work, Albee's " Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Theatre Cocoon, and in August in his handling of Fukushima's "Uwasa no Otoko" at the Parco Theater. Sandloviich seemed to polish Albee's 1962 classic well-nigh to perfection in terms of casting, sets and costumes. But what made it a standout was the focus he brought to the two couples' relationship, and how he made it more universal so as to reveal the core of their story to a Japanese audience.

Although Fukushima is known for his heartwarming productions, in his "Uwasa no Otoko," Sandloviich introduced an extra bitterness into what was already a black comedy about the Osaka showbiz world.

Best actor: Akira Emoto.

Emoto's performance in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" displayed his consummate acting skill. His charisma and sheer presence came as a forceful reminder that a great actor's magic comes from far beyond just technique.

"Endgame," the Irish master of the absurd's second play, was directed by Makoto Sato as part of Setagaya Public Theatre's centennial Beckett series. Staged with minimal sets and dim lighting, two of the four actors would pop up from inside oil drums to speak their lines. For his part, Emoto neither jumped about nor employed histrionics; his power was such that he was utterly compelling even when he was only walking around lazily and chuckling to himself. At 58, Emoto -- who heads his own Tokyo Kandenchi Theater Company and often appears on both the small and big screen -- maintains the unique and individual talent that won him a Japanese Academy Award back in 1998.

Best actress: Midori Kiuchi in "Soylent Green ist Menschenfleisch, sagt es allen weiter!"

In her long career on stage, 56-year-old Kiuchi always seemed cut out for the gentle, feminine roles, such as housewives and mothers, for which she is best known. Then, she landed a role in t.p.t's production of "Soylent Green." In an online interview during rehearsals for that groundbreaking, postmodern production, she admitted that at first she didn't understand the play's complicated, symbolic script until the words forced her to look deeply into her memories of her own life. Kiuchi also confessed that meeting Pollesch had made such big impact on her that she now divides her career into pre- and post-Pollesch periods. And the transformation on stage was astounding as Kiuchi played her heart out, aggressively yelling four-letter words, romping and frolicking with a hitherto unseen venom that she made look natural.

Best set design: "The Window."

Staged as a part of the yearlong "Dramatic Australia" performing arts exchange, "The Window" opened in September in the cozy Space 107 theater in Shinjuku. The small venue was cleverly used to tell a globe-trotting story, leaving many in the theater amazed at its originality.

As the life story of a middle-aged Australian woman was acted out by a cast of only two, props such as a bed, a telephone box, an airplane seat and a sandbox were transported on five train tracks that radiated out from a big screen, to suggest different stages of her life, including a trip to her mother's hometown of Paris. The Australian team of cowriter/director Mark Bromilow, stage designer Alison Ross and video image designer Jen Muller, used eight in-house cameras and pre-recorded footage to make it appear that a play with a cast of two actually had six main characters as well as more supporting players.

Best new play: "Sakura Shibuki (Cherry-Blossom Spray)" and "Asia no Onna (An Asian Woman)" by Keishi Nagatsuka.

Aged just 31, Nagatsuka was invited this year by two major public theaters, the Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) and the New National Theatre (NNT) to present a new play for them and he responded to them tremendously.

"Sakura Shibuki," at SEPT, was an 3-hour-plus period piece that drew from ancient Japanese folktales about snake-worship and cherry blossoms. Nagatsuka used the material to reveal the folly of assuming that the goodness or badness of an individual depends on social standing. In so doing, he posed powerful questions about the meaning of "justice."

In "Asia no Onna" at the NNT, Nagatsuka presented Tokyo after a big earthquake, using the chaos to tell Japanese they must learn to judge things for themselves.

Nagatsuka's plays were staged to appeal to all generations, not only his own peers; for this he stands apart from other young dramatists, who so often seem to seek only acclaim from their own circle of friends.

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