Awaji Puppet Theater
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
March 5, 2009
Entering the Japan Society auditorium, there is a faint smell of perfume. I am surrounded by people of all different ages, ethnicities, and social standings. It seems much more formal and exciting than any show I've seen in New York. Theatre is a gift of sharing, and tonight we are being let into another culture and another time period through the Awaji Puppet Theater Company. The Awaji puppet tradition dates back at least 500 years, and there is something fascinating about seeing something that has been so unchanged through time, so untainted by modernity and Western thought. There is something mind-boggling to me about being able to see a performance in almost the same manner as it was seen by people half a millennium ago.
Awaji Puppetry uses Bunraku style puppets. That is, there is a beautifully painted and costumed puppet, perhaps three or four feet tall, operated by three puppeteers (right hand, left hand, and feet). The puppeteers are completely clad in black, except for their hands. All of the puppetry occurs in a large picture box set. Downstage of this, a chanter narrates the story in Japanese accompanied by one (and sometimes two) shamisen players. A television screen on the side of the stage offers translations.
The company performs excerpts from three puppet plays/dances. The first is a comedy in which the deity Ebisu comes to a townsperson and drinks all of the holy sake. The Ebisu puppet's movements and dance become increasingly funny the drunker he becomes. He toasts to everything he can think of and by his last cup of sake, we realize the serious chanter is no longer speaking in Japanese, but is now saying, in broken English, "here's to more green cars in New York. Cheers!" and "Here's to the Yankees. Cheers!" This modernization and use of English is completely unexpected and is the perfect choice to show the audience that this ancient, beautiful art form is not just a solemn event but is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed and it is okay to laugh.
Next is "The Ferry Crossing Scene." A woman, Kiyohime, scorned by her lover, argues with a ferryman to take her after her prince. With time, her love turns into an overwhelming jealousy, turning her into a giant serpent. In one moment, Kiyohime stands demure and pleading, and in the next, she tosses back her hair and when we see her face a second later it is grotesque and evil. 500 years perfecting this form of puppetry are evident in this magical, shocking moment.
The third piece is "The Mountain Scene." A woman brings her blind husband to a temple on a mountain so he can pray to regain his lost sight. As soon as his wife leaves, he throws himself from the cliff. The wife returns, realizes what has happened, and jumps as well. The wife's piety is noted by the deity Kannon and the couple is brought back to life. This piece is chanted by Takemoto Tomowaka, a woman with extraordinary presence, who offers the must guttural, gut-wrenching, soulful sounds in her narration. I may not understand the language, but I do understand the sounds of a person who is devastated, heart-broken, and torn inside out.
While the unfamiliar words and sounds of the chanters and shamisens may fall a little harshly on unfamiliar American ears, it is a gift to share in this rich puppet culture. Exiting the theatre, I had the privilege of shaking the Ebisu puppet's hand. It was a great privilege—these puppets (and the puppeteers behind them) are beautiful and incredible.