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Open: 03/26/10- Close: 03/28/10 Kyogen: Traditional Comic Theater Of Japan
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Lauren Wissot

Perhaps the most surprising thing about "Kyogen: Traditional Comic Theater of Japan," comprised of two classic kyogen - literal translation "mad words" or "wild speech" - tales, is how accessible the production is to western eyes. Presented by the Yamamoto Kyogen Company, a family that for generations has been practicing this comedic art form that developed alongside noh and dates back to the early 14th century, "Shido Hogaku (Stop in Your Tracks)" and "Tsukimi Zato (Moon-viewing Blind Man)" are both as timeless and engaging as anything in the Shakespeare canon. No wonder Charlie Chaplin called kyogen "the most sophisticated art form" when he visited the Yamamoto clan's theater in 1932.

"Shido Hogaku" is a hilarious reversal-of-station routine between a blowhard samurai master who wants to participate in a tea ceremony, and his put upon servant who must go to the master's uncle's home to ask for a box of tea, a sword and a horse (all of which samurai masters themselves are supposed to own) for the event. With the slow build of a classic Abbott and Costello sketch the piece deftly satirizes the upper class - and its inherent insecurities - with the grace of a pas de deux. It's like watching the Far East equivalent of Chaplin's work (or even that of a class-conscious surrealist like Bunuel). There's a respect for the comedic setup that is a somewhat lost art these days - standup comedy being a loner's game - which adds a greater poignancy to the straight man role played by Yamamoto Yasutaro (in a real life reversal this "master" alternates parts with Yamamoto Norihide who plays the servant character on different nights).

As the two actors engage in a musical duet in which language and movement are essential, talking to the point of silliness, taking their time getting to the point ("There's more?" is a query endlessly repeated - and helpfully projected in English on an unobtrusive screen downstage left) even those Chaplin descendants with a reverence for irreverence - the Pythons - come to mind. The uncle, played by Yamamoto Noritoshi whose father contributed to a kyogen resurgence in the 60s, agrees to the servant's request of a sword with "No problem. But I suggest a samurai warrior should have his own sword." To which the servant sheepishly responds that his master ordered one already but he hasn't gotten it yet. Substitute John Cleese for the uncle and Michael Palin for the servant and you could end up with an episode of "Flying Circus." (Especially when the horse, played by Wakamatsu Takashi, whose bad habit of getting rowdy when he hears a sneeze becomes the key to the underling's gaining the upper hand.)

And the slapstick antics only serve to heighten the second darker piece "Tsukimi Zato," in which a blind man on a walk outside to hear nature during a full moon is first befriended then accosted by the same passerby. Beginning with Noritoshi's blind man's lovely soliloquy about the various sounds of insects - "A man became so engrossed listening to the sound of crickets that he died to it" - the play quickly descends into drunkenness and finally a nastiness that reveals the duplicitous nature of mankind. Along with Yasutaro's passerby they drink sake from their fans with tai chi precision, dance (when the passerby thinks the blind man's request that he dance for him unusual the blind man replies, "Since it is unusual, could you accept my request?") then go their separate ways. But in an act of spontaneous senseless violence the passerby returns in the guise of another to assault the harmless cane-tapping gent. It's a shocking scene, made all the more so by the sleek wooden floor and bare stage under full bright lighting that the entire production takes place on. The bonsai painted on the back screen upstage and three small shrubs on stage right remain the only witnesses to man's cruelty in this human puppet show.


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Venue:
Japan Society : 333 EAST 47th STREET