Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kabuki: Twelfth Night and Saiyuki a blog in three parts.

So last Wednesday I went and saw Twelfth Night by Ninagawa in the Shinbashi Enbujo. I actually really liked the theater. It was certainly newer than Kabuki-za, and felt newer, but it kinda lacked the character Kabuki-za has. I really liked the set up of the building, and it is in a very convenient location. I also really liked my seat cause it gave me a good view of the hanamichi, only issue was that the closest corner of the stage was almost completely lost to view. Luckily this wasn't too big a deal for this play, as it used a stage prop I had never seen used before; mirrors. The stage was surrounded on mirrors on both sides, so that I could still see the actors even if they were hidden behind the balcony ledge (which was where I was sitting.) But nothing important was hidden from direct view, and I loved the view, though I think I would opt to sit in the far right corner of the seats facing the stage for next time.

This play was amazing and will always stand out in my mind for just how beautifully artistic, creative, and original, it's mixing of western and kabuki acting, scenery, and props was. It really captured all that was good about both kinds of theater and combined them into something breath taking.

One of the first things that struck me was the music combination. They used the lute, harpsichord, and string music traditionally found in the Shakespearean plays and combined it with the drums and shamisen of the kabuki plays. I wouldn't have though it would go well together, and it took me a minute to understand what I was hearing when it started before curtain went up. But really, it turned out wonderfully, the strings helped to back up and create background music for the drums, and also helped create a mood that I think is some times hard to make with the instruments available in kabuki music. The music in kabuki I find to be much stronger, where as the music in Shakespear's plays can be to soft and flouncy. The combination really balanced it out.

The first scene was really breath taking. They used an interesting effect quite a lot in this play; the fade out/in. The first scene appeared to be a glass screen with children singing one of the opening songs that is almost always found in Shakespeare but not kabuki. The glass screen was actually double sided glass that when the spot was shown on the singing children you could see them, but nothing behind the glass. But slowly they lit the scenery behind the glass revealing a giant cherry tree with blossoms falling and a court set with a harpsichord on stage and the children singing. It was really breath taking watching the tree magically materialize behind the children. the glass curtain raised at some point to reveal the whole stage un-obscured.

The plot seemed to carry on exactly like the Shakespeare story. Sadly I didn't get the head phones. I now wish I had just to see if the translation was exact from the original script. The main lord came out and did his opening speech, I believe saying he had to send his children off to another land and how sad he was.

The an amazing scene change and the hero"s" come out on a boat, that looked very believable, in heroic pose. The storm scene was amazing. They used strobes and fog machines. Very super kabuki I thought. With the waves moving (people under cloth, but it looked very scary with the lights and sounds, very intense) and washing the prince out to sea.

Another thing that amazed me was how quickly they could do costume changes on the actor that played both the prince and princess. It was amazing, he would go into a room or boat and come out in a completely different costume. It must have been so hard to get it that fast and coordinated. I can't even imagine how many people he had helping him change that fast.

I thought they caught the spirit of the characters from the original play very well. There is always a certain way you supposed to play the maid, or the drunken fop, or the main princess, or the one that all the guys like. They have a set personality that you are supposed to provoke. I haven't watched any Kabuki plays more than once, but I am sure there is an archetype. However it would seem to me that many of the characters in kabuki have far more subdued personalities. Where as characters in Shakespeare were always the epitome of the person they were trying to project, they took a personality trait to the limit and over, making it ridiculous. All of Kabuki is very subdued and softer. So they hit somewhere in the middle, again. Like with the Foppish character. Not only was his costume and way of speaking suggestive (he even used an English word in now and then for purely comedic effect, and it worked when he did it in his nancy boy accent, very funny), but he was much more active and used much more gesturing. One thing that stuck in my mind, when he was first introduced, in the head princesses home, he fidgeted. And I thought to my self "he's fidgeting, you don't fidget in kabuki, you usually try not to fidget in Japanese culture generally, and he is fidgeting." If I remember correctly the character does indeed fidget in the Shakespeare play as well. So they must have followed a lot of the original stage directions.

Another thing that I found interesting was the strength of the women in the plays. Though both kabuki and Shakespeare don't use women on stage, kabuki plays seem to portray women in a much softer more feminine role. Where as in this play, you have a woman cross dressing (which isn't un heard of in Japanese theater, from both the original kabuki plays to the newer ones where women dress as men (can't remember what they are called)) and even the maid in this play is cocky, tough, sly, and witty. The Princess too, refuses to marry someone who it would traditionally be beneficial to marry. So I think this play put women in a much stronger role than they are usually given in traditional kabuki plot lines. You can have strong female figures in kabuki, but they still portray a lighter more refined personality.

Like in one scene where the main character princess (dressed as a kind guy) does the only dance scene in the play (which was GORGEOUS) and then after words he is complimenting him (her, but he thinks she is a guy) and she kind of faints, or gets short of breath afterwords. It's a very new way I think for kabuki to show women.

Back to effects. One of the things I liked was how they implemented the fact that the stage turns. It was the most scene changes I have seen in a kabuki thus far. I wish I had kept count. And almost every time, they dimmed the stage lights so that it was just one spotlight on a main actor that followed them as the scene change slowly hid them from view. I bet Shakespeare wishes they had had that technology in his time, because it was so perfect for this play. It was a very dramatic way for a actor to leave the stage after their speech was over. In Shakespearean plays usually, if an especially important scene has just happened (like the one where the Princess explains her love of her new found Lord and how it pains her because she loves the neighboring Lady so much and she is disguised as a man and might be punished or banished from his sight if her reveals her *deep breath*) it is a wonderful way to raise the drama level and let the audience applaud the wonderful scene. So I really approved of that use of stage design.

The addition of the dance scene was very nice too I thought. In Shakespeare there was often a soliloquy or one of the actors would sing a ballad about something that would pertain to the story in some way. But this was very nice, I like it much better. The dance scenes are one of my favorite parts of Kabuki, and I would love to have a recording of this dance scene to memorize it, it was very well choreographed. Or better yet, I would love to have this whole kabuki on dvd. But I approved of the addition of that scene. It worked well to express the heroins love of the lord.

I love the way they adopted the costumes to fit the scene where the court counselor for the Princess comes out dressed in a ridiculous all yellow costume. Since obviously they couldn't have him where yellow cross garter stockings, I think they did a great job making it just as over the top. The yellow tabi socks were hilarious. Again, I almost wish I had gotten the translation head phones so I could see how they adapted that part of the script so that it was talking about Japanese court clothing instead of English court clothing. I wonder if I can find an online copy of the skript.

The set designs were briliant. That is one way in which this play as a kabuki trumps the original version. There was not much room for intricate sets in Shakespeares time, and even now the sets are usually much different. But the lords houses that backed eachother and were changed just by turning the stage were amazing. As was the garden of white flowers with the bridges over them that the last scene and I think a majority of the scenes took place at, was beautiful, and nothing that I have seen done for this play. The detail was amazing.

Though some of the changes were very cultural in nature. For example, in many versions of this play, at the drinking party they are in the back room (or kitchen like area) of the princess manner, so it looks like servent quarters, not the reagle tatami mats that were used in this play. However, I do not think that these little changes added or subtracted anything from the play, though I do think it would have helped to show just how laid back the fop, the jester, and the other retainer dude were with the maid and each other. Much of the Japanese higher archy system was kept. Except for the fact that the people affore mentioned were allowed to beat up the court counselor with out any form of punishment, which would never have happened in japanese fudel society. But I think that was just them trying to stay as true to Shakespears script as possible.

All in all I thought this was an amazing play, and my favorite I have seen thus far, even over Saiyuki, despite that being the more active of the two. It might just be because I can understand the plot line of this and am familiar with the story, but I do not think that influences my opinion much, because despit it being the same story, much of the set, and look and feel of it have changed. So it is really a completely new telling. I loved it, the music and the art of it. If I have a chance I will buy a copy of it, or maybe it will show somewhere in America and I will see it again there live. I hope to see it again one day. Eve gives Twelfth Night by Ninagawa 5 big bright shinny stars!

Thus ends post one of this three post series. Now I am off to practice Japanese. I will maybe start another post some time tonight if I have time. If not you can expect the next two of this series and probably one more by next week.

Wish me luck!

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