nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
January 29, 2009
East most emphatically meets West in the Company East adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, currently running at La MaMa ETC. A fusion of eastern Noh theatre and western modern dance, loosely wrapped in the story of Hamlet, this production is both a visual feast and an aural challenge. The visuals keep you enthralled despite the significant language barrier to those who do not understand Japanese.
Most of the dialogue in this 80-minute piece is spoken in Japanese, with a smattering of English now and again to help keep the audience on track with the storyline. More help to non-Japanese speakers is lent by the occasional video projection of supertitles.
Kenji Kawarasaki, the artistic director of Company East and the director/choreographer for this Hamlet, utilizes La MaMa's Annex Theater to full effect in an environmental, exciting, sometimes surprising and always engaging way. Though it certainly helps to know Shakespeare's play, even without that pre-cognition the tale of a reluctant avenger goaded into action only after profound loss is clearly there, engrossing and palpable.
You may not understand everything you see, and the guttural utterances in Japanese at full volume may get a bit wearing, but on the whole the show is completely entertaining. There is a Greek tragedy feel to the piece, with the dancing and movement and stentorian speaking, yet this is not pejorative, as Kawarasaki keeps things moving and holds the audience's attention.
He is helped immensely by the video design of Yoshiaki Takano and the lighting design of Jin Nakayama. Six video projectors display images as well as the aforementioned words in concert with lighting that transforms the space sometimes beautifully, sometimes breathtakingly, and always in support of the story while adding key elements to the whole.
The company of six actors, five men and one woman, works as a true ensemble and manages to get the story of Hamlet told, minus the subplots, in an amazingly concise time frame. Hiroshi Jin, as Hamlet, leads the ensemble skillfully. At times his performance is reminiscent of Oedipus railing against the Fates, but in the context of this production it seems appropriate. The others are also excellent in multiple roles, with notably memorable characterizations of the Gravedigger by Mutsutaka Jin and of Ophelia by Yoko Tomabechi.
The program states that Company East "takes pride in taking the lead in creating and introducing to the world a new Japanese and Eastern artistic culture that sublimates the values of both East and West." Indeed, since their inception in 1999, they have performed worldwide. New York is fortunate to have this company here, albeit for a brief stay. In this new age of hope and optimism for a better world, it is great to see this successful mix of cultural styles. Jin perhaps best exemplifies this emerging era when he appears with the company at the curtain call holding a sprig of cherry blossoms, and states in heartfelt terms how art can bridge cultural gaps. There is a real joy to this production. See it if you can.