Monday, November 14, 2011

Blog #16: An example of integrated techniques: how the Japanese are doing it at The Flea Theatre

So, I’m resuming my discussion of the Integrated Acting Process; I will approach it in a roundabout, decidedly un-pedantic way by working back from results to causes. Last night, I had the good fortune to see an excellent example of ‘integration’: Kurotama Kikaku’s production of Kutsukake Tokijiro, brilliantly directed by Jun Kim.  

A colleague of mine, Jan Mizushima, who has been engaged in the lengthy rehearsal process, had from time to time endeavored to describe how this musical play was being prepared. She said the usual sort of thing about being asked to experiment with her character, only to discover that most of the time the director had something else in mind.  I was intrigued by the fact that someone as attractive and youthful as Jan was playing the old Innkeeper’s Wife. So I had no idea what was coming, as I entered the august precinct of The Flea Theatre, where I’ve seen a lot of good avant-garde theatre over the years, including a star turn by Ruth Malaczek in a Mabou Mines production – whose name escapes me and, irritatingly, I can’t seem to find on the Internet. 

Down went the lights and for the next seventy-five minutes – although no one was counting – I was transported to a Japanese universe, where I felt completely at home. No, I’m going to resist writing a review, although I encourage anyone who reads this to rush right down to the Flea Theatre for a deeply satisfying evening of singing, dancing, comedy, intriguing visuals, based on a deeply moving old-time story that resonates with all the joys and miseries of today.  (On second thought,  before rushing down, you better make a reservation at

The evocative music, imaginative lighting and video images and expert direction – all are inspiring, but it is each individual actor and how they work together that keep an audience on its toes, eagerly watching each new development.  And this is especially necessary because this isn’t Broadway or even Off-Broadway with real funding.  No, this is homegrown talent and very, very hard work for no pay. These are skilled actors, who know how to move and characterize.  We, the audience, are so close we can almost feel the actors’ impulses in our own bodies.  And last night I felt myself caring about the ‘good guys’ – while at the same time feeling comfortable enough to laugh at the antics of the often hilarious ‘bad guys.’ 

How do these actors succeed in not only entertaining us but also transporting us emotionally to their exotic Japanese Universe – half the play is in Japanese with supertitles? Many of the actors are Japanese, but there are some non-Japanese, as well, and they manage to achieve a seamless style.  This is no mean feat.
As an acting teacher, I have some thoughts on this. Apparently, the actors all know what the play is about. I’m sure that each actor or actress would say it in their own words, but I would put it this way: the world has been and always will be pretty horrible. Most of us are neither good nor bad, a lot of what we do to get on in life is absurd, and the possibility of love, wealth or whatever one’s ‘joy of choice’ is gives us the energy to survive.  

With all the fun and action on hand that a musical play needs to muster,  I was still aware at every moment while watching Kutsukake Tokijiro of the deep underlying tragedy of Japan at this moment in time – and I could relate to it, because I feel America is going through some ghastliness as well, and I think we are all wondering, wherever we are in the world, what is coming next.

The central performance by Yasu Suzuki, as the reluctant gangster, is in turn romantic, humorous, and violent.  But it is his steadiness and depth of character that sustain the play, connect us to its meaning and move us in so many ways. As I watched him, I couldn’t help thinking of Japan losing the war and the recent horror of the earthquake and tsunami, but more than anything the cover-up about the leakage of the nuclear plant at Fukushima– which, in turn, brought to mind America’s debacle in Vietnam, our ten years’ war based on those unavailable ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and our blood-strewn search and final recent capture of Osama bin Laden. It also brought to mind The Trojan War, initiated by the capture of one king’s wife, and carried on infinitely by ‘heroes.’ 

This vibrant entertainment was made possible by actors who connect to their characters personally and possess the technical proficiency to play on many levels simultaneously. Imagine if our leading man had played his ‘subtext’ of melancholy on the surface, without the humor and specificity of constant switching between charming, tricking and terrorizing everyone around him.  All the actors contributed mightily to the over-all effect, including my colleague, the Inn Keeper’s wife, showing a wonderful balance of underlying intention, human spirit and vulnerability – as well as a ridiculous fallibility – energized by technical facility in working toward clear objectives, furbished by fully realized character adjustments. 

One senses a sturdy, collaborative spirit on the Asian/American theatre and film scene these days. In the space of a couple of weeks, I’ve seen three delightful examples: two of them I’ve written about; Kutsukake Tokijiro and the excellent film, God’s Land, and the third is the very funny and insightful production of Chinglish, currently running on Broadway. All three are comedies, laced with tragedy, containing cohesive multi-national casts – speaking in different languages (hurray for supertitles) - and very relatable for American audiences. 

Is there really some hope for the world?

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