Gekiryu (When the torrent takes their lives)
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
January 21, 2011
In darkness, we hear the sound of physical conflict punctuated by percussion, trombone, and human breath. Red backlighting on an upstage scrim brings an otherwise bare set to life. The darkened silhouettes of samurais and ninjas tumble in a fury of swords and stage combat until one man is left standing. So opens Samurai Sword Soul's production of Gekiryu (When the Torrent Takes Their Lives). In much the same vein as epic feudal dramas Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, the story here is secondary to swordplay—but what swordplay it is.
Director, choreographer, author and—yes—lead actor Yoshihisa Kuwayama deftly orchestrates acrobatic martial art sequences with the ensemble on stage, bringing passion to a tale of two brothers not only at odds with one another but also with their tyrannical father. As Seigou, the brother who escapes prison and returns home with a familial vendetta, Kuwayama does a fine job as the vengeful, tortured sibling, but I did find myself wishing for additional levels to his performance. This could be remedied with some script revisions; I understood that Seigou was an angry young man but was at a loss in terms of what might have created this great rift with his family. As the upstanding brother Toshimitsu, Yoshi Amao gives an understated everyman performance reminiscent of Gregory Peck (if Peck had ever done a samurai film). Jiro Ueno solidly commands the stage as Muneyoshi, the unbending family patriarch.
Ninjas Red (Lisa Itabashi) and Blue (Umihei) along with narrator Kanbei (Ryosuke Yamada) add a dose of levity. The two female leads present the greatest emotional depth to the piece. Takemi Kitamura brings a feisty tomboyish spin to Kaede, a young female pickpocket who becomes Seigou’s protégé. We are told that she and her master are close—indeed, that she loves him—but the two are hardly on stage together. A scene establishing this relationship would have been very helpful. Asuka Morinaga as Sanai, the woman who loved one brother and married the other, offers a sentient performance as a gentle soul who must ultimately summon the strength to do that which she abhors for the greater good.
The story told in English often moves slower than it should and loses some nuance due to the cast's uneven English-speaking abilities. In some instances, entire sentences were lost. In the row behind me, a girl talked throughout the entire performance, translating the story for her seatmate in Japanese. I could not help but think that it might be a greater service not only to the actors but also to the audience members to do the show in Japanese and project English subtitles on the back wall of the set.
The fluidity of Kuwayama's choreography is beautifully accented by Tsubasa Kamei's lighting design, which veers from down spots on gleaming swords in the combat sequences to suggesting a feudal lord's home with a backlight reminiscent of a Japanese paper screen. While there is apparently not a costumer in the traditional sense for this production, the kimonos and hamakas used throughout are truly breathtaking. I must also pay special attention to the production's live musicians: the strains of flute, blast of taiko, and occasional trumpet made the action onstage crackle and pop with an almost tangible electricity.
Without giving too much away, the play ends with two puppets representing the brothers in earlier and presumably more peaceful days, fishing together by the side of the river. While a delightful stage convention, once introduced, I wished that the puppets and/or elements of puppetry could have somehow been incorporated throughout so they felt like less of an afterthought.
I suspect Gekiryu is a work in progress based on the immense amount of work poured into this incarnation's very short run. While I feel there are some larger production issues that could stand to be addressed, its merits are enough to recommend it to anyone who enjoys the martial arts genre. I, for one, look forward to the next battle.