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Butoh Electra

nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
September 1, 2012

Butoh Electra features some fantastic practitioners of the titular Japanese movement form that (in this production at least) means compelling slow moving contortions.

The chorus of four women, Robin Singer, Christina Stone, Eiko Kawashima, and Janice Amano, made to look emaciated, were on stage the whole play; they embodied Electra’s struggle with a risky physical vulnerability. The first moment in the play that struck me was Stone’s arm elevated into a gaunt 90 degree elbow bend. Kawashima gives an exceptional solo where she is manipulated and raped by the demonic ‘Usurper,’ played by Shang-Ho Huang. Almost the entirety of Huang’s jerking incubus is executed with his eyes closed: his lids covered over in red make-up. This makes the couple of moments where he opens them, to reveal black pupils, especially eerie. His body would be overtaken, and move in precise spurts, his mouth open, panting, as he went to manipulate his various victims. Huang’s captivating movements are like a small animal such as a bird or squirrel that moves in little twitches, but his are smaller, not just per thought, and more fiendish. Butoh choreography is by Luca Nicora. Another great performance is offered by Yokko as the Mother. Once she entered carried on a back: singing, unblinking. I remember her shoulders rolling coquettishly as she exited from a confrontation. Her every choice had an air of specificity and mystery.

Entering the Irondale Center’s theatre, huge plastic sheets hang down and splattered dark red covers the stage. A massacre. From lead production design by Mo Geiger we feel the epic scale immediately.

Electra’s father, an ‘Old Shogun,’ is murdered. His position and wife are taken by the Usurper. Electra pursues revenge for this betrayal, including the death of her own mother. The incestuous link she has to her father is also played out onto her brother, Orestes, as she persuades him to kill their mother. The other sister cannot confront the horror.

Set in an old-world Japan purgatory, why Electra’s father was initially killed by the demon, was not clear to me until the final scene when he sat next to the mother, indicating he had ‘taken the throne and married the queen.’ Occasionally I would miss lines of dialogue because they were inaudible. When Orestes returned home, he was not recognized by Electra or his mother, yet there was no device to indicate he was disguising himself somehow. He was simply unrecognized, then later recognized. Maybe this was connected to his promise to avenge his father, yet hesitancy at the follow through?

Created by Jordan Rosin, the work had clear strengths, but sometimes fell short in storytelling, which was not necessarily the focal point. Directed/choreographed by Sophia Schrank, dance communicated better than the script.

Hannah Scott as Electra and Torrey Wigfield as Orestes have a strong hand to hand martial arts style fight, choreographed by Christian Leadley, but moments of impact when fighting with the wooden swords felt slightly off.

At the end (beginning with cool music designed by Thomas Murphy, ranging in the play from Indonesian gamelan jangling bells to hip hop), we are told that we, the audience, are the jury to assess whether Electra’s actions were justified. She killed the Usurper for revenge, but it seemed she killed her mother and brother for their weakness in defending the father’s honor. Her affection for her father diminished all else. Electra despised her sister for not feeling as she does.

This is the first project created and produced by the Ume Group, as a part of last year’s FringeNYC. Off to a great start, I hope this company continues to produce work using Butoh.