Among the more ambitious and exotic offerings this season at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival is the American premiere of Ophelia, a vivid and compelling variation on the Hamlet story, created by the Kyoto-based NOHO theatre group. NOHO may not exactly be the father of Japanese-American cross-cultural fusion, but it has been so prolific and influential that it can be called at least the uncle of Japanese theatre’s new international visibility.
The Three Rivers production, running through July 11, is a collaboration between NOHO artists and members of the Festival’s Young Company, based at the University of Pittsburgh. This kind of joint effort may be nothing new for NOHO, which has been pushing the envelope of East-West theatre experimentation for over a decade. But Ophelia will break fresh ground by giving young Americans a rare chance to work with truly extraordinary Japanese artists.Order now
NOHO members like actor Matsui Akira and kotosuzumi (shoulder drum) musician Hisada Shunichiro would have been hard to find 20 years ago, when masters of Japan’s least flexible classical theatre form were expected to be noh artists and nothing else. Until recently, noh actors who have tried to get out from behind the mask and under the pine tree have often been penalized by the iemoto, senior masters who control each “school” of noh, and who are determined to keep their art untainted by anything that might damage an actor’s concentration and purity of style.
One measure of the new status and power enjoyed by Matsui, Hisada and others like them is that they no longer have to pass up challenging opportunities or moonlight under assumed names. They can work outside noh, even outside Japan, thanks to foreign colleagues such as the American producer and director Jonah Salz, who have helped traditional Japanese actors attain a freedom that was once unthinkable.
Salz first encountered Japanese theatre in all its majesty in 1977, when the high-tech stage pioneer Ichikawa Ennosuke brought one of his “New Directions” kabuki spectacles to New York. Salz’s search for “universals of performance” in the Japanese and Western traditions led him to Kyoto and a meeting with Shigeyamam Akira, a young actor of classical kyogen comedy. The two co-founded NOHO in 1981 as an experiment in using the techniques and structures of noh and kyogen to interpret Western texts.
In the years since, actors, dancers and musicians from 10 countries have collaborated on 25 NOHO productions of English, Japanese and bilingual plays. Their repertoire ranges from Shakespeare, Yeats and Beckett to medieval French farces, Woody Allen adaptations of Boccaccio, and even a trilingual English-German-Japanese kyogen from a story by the Brothers Grimm.
For all of NOHO’s hits and occasional misses, Salz and company may gain their greatest honor for having launched the revolutionary Traditional Theatre Training program. Now in its ninth year, TTT has brought together more than 60 theatre artists and scholars from Europe, Asia and the Americans to study noh, kyogen, the classical dance form Nihon buyo, and other Japanese theatre arts. Each year, a few TTT students choose to stay in Japan, and see what new things can be done with the small but venturesome mix of talent that now lives and works in Kyoto. Salz, NOHO and TTT have blazed a very wide trail that continues to open.
Driven to madness by love
In his first production of Ophelia outside Japan, Salz attempts to fuse an English text delivered by American actors with the atmosphere and imagery of a noh play. The result is a double mirror that reflects the heroine’s plight from two directions, thereby illuminating the universal predicament of those who die without knowing why their lives were ruined, nor how they might have been healed.
When told from Ophelia’s point of view, Hamlet has natural connections with noh especially since one of the five categories of the noh repertoire consists of “passive” tragedies about women who have done no evil, but who are driven to madness by lost love. The clueless Ophelia, a vessel too fragile to withstand the currents of rage and crime breaking against her, is left unprotected by her brother, manipulated by her father and the King, and bitterly spurned by the man she loves. The murder of Polonius knocks her over the edge. Her own death is a mystery called an accident by the Queen, a suicide by the Gravedigger.
In the NOHO version, set in the graveyard of Elsinore, Ophelia’s ghost appears and tells her story, sifting through shards of memory in order to attain the understanding that will dispel her nightmares and let her sleep peacefully at last. If Ophelia’z agony is to become poignant enough that its release in the ritual exorcism of noh has power to calm and heal, the role requires a noh actor who is superbly grounded in his own art, yet able to find the luminous elements of pure theatre that transcend all barriers of culture, language and style.
NOHO is lucky to have Matsui Akira as Ophelia’s ghost. This young artist in the noh world, anyone under 50 is young promises to be an actor of truly historic stature. He has played some of the most demanding lead roles in noh, has written and staged original dramatizations of Japanese myths (including Rashomon), gives regular workshops in Australia, Europe and the United States, and has appeared as a guest artist with several multinational companies. (With NOHO he has played Cuchulain and the Hawk in different productions of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, and has danced the Broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He will star in Beckett’s Rockaby at Oregon’s Portland Theatre Festival in July.) Those who get to see Matsui in Pittsburgh and Portland will understand at once his astounding possibilities, and his delicious problem. He could easily spend the rest of his life dancing and teaching outside Japan, and thereby lose contact with noh at the source; or he could become one of the most exalted noh actors is Japan, at the price of sacrificing offers and chances from other fields and countries.
Matsui is unique. He is not the first noh actor to teach abroad, but he is the first to be pulled in so many directions by would-be collaborators, students and fans. He’s like a Johnny Appleseed of Japanese theatre, tossing a few pine kernels into any field that looks clear and ready. In the next century, whole forests could spring up where Akira Matsui has gone.