After the Rain
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
April 10, 2008
Watching After the Rain, a new multimedia show based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of the best-known Japanese writers of the last century, is a surreal experience. It is as if two entirely different performances are being woven together intermittently, and I found myself favoring one decidedly over the other.
Creator Watoku Ueno and the Yara Arts Group have put tremendous thought into the aesthetics of the piece. It opens beautifully, with one of the most original and intriguing set designs I have ever seen. It serves up one surprise after another, from exotic costumes to intricate movements. A combination of music, shadow puppets, projections, and dance, it feels like a theatre version of an art house silent film. And I loved that show. But then there is another show, in which the profound and penetrating stories are reduced to a few flat lines and exaggerated enactments—and this so distracts and detracts from the former, that the whole feels inevitably less than the sum of its parts.
From the moment the audience walks into the theatre, the focus is on the stage: the floor is an open grid, with beams wide enough for actors to walk on, and openings big enough for them to fall or jump in. A musician in traditional Japanese attire appears on the balcony, and with a simple guitar fills the theatre with mystery and allure. When the lights come up, three women start moving on the grid with delicate, gliding footwork. Two of them hold white paper umbrellas. "Rain. Hard rain breaks my heart," they sing.
It's the story of "Rashomon." We see on the rice-paper screen backdrop a shadow puppet of a man climbing up a ladder. A real man emerges from under the grid onto the stage. He is a samurai fallen on hard times, taking shelter from the rain in the ruins of the Rashomon Gate. He witnesses an old woman pulling hair out of a corpse to sell as wigs. He is first outraged, then decides to follow her example and robs her of her clothes.
For those who have not read the original story, the action may speak for itself. But the dramatization of the story is so simplistic it offers scant exploration of this man's inner struggle. He becomes the carbon copy of the old woman, and makes no revelation of any human need beyond basic survival. "I have so little choice," is the only line offered by the script to explain his action, and it's lamentably inadequate.
With no apparent connection, the show moves to the second story, "Magic," in which a man learns a great craft of magic, with the condition that it never be used for greed. He violates the agreement and suffers violent death. The shadow puppetry again outshines the real actors, as objects appear, move, transform, and disappear with a great deal of ingenuity and fanfare. The tone turns from the grimness of the first segment into tongue-in-cheek glee. This prop extravaganza would have been great for kids, if not for its heavy-handed, strenuous message. The blunt depiction of the story ironically defies Akutagawa's characteristic moral ambiguity.
The third story, "Mandarin," is about an old man's impressions of a simple act by a country girl, who throws mandarins out of the window of her train to her brothers. The physical rendition of the story is affecting, especially the movement of the train and the action by the girl. The narration, however, with four actors each assigned a few lines and speaking in the first person, comes across as disjointed or even baffling. The translation of the text is also problematic: the overly plain and short English version, as if further simplified for children, loses the original's descriptive flavor and emotional depth. Furthermore, the actors often seem to merely "recite" the text and perform in a pronouncedly dramatic style that is more for a demonstration or show-and-tell. Oftentimes one actor tells, and the other shows, with a few seconds delay. I can see how this device may work for a satire or comedy, but sadly not exactly for this meditative piece.
One thing that absolutely works throughout is the music by the composer/guitarist/sound designer Kato Hideki. It seamlessly merges with the striking visuals and accentuates the poignancy of the stories. I could listen to him forever. Luba Kierkosz's costume design is stylish and refined, serving the physical movements to perfection.
After the Rain is written, designed, and directed by Watoku Ueno, and according to the program note, the scenes were created by the artists of Yara in rehearsal. Hats off to the artistry he and his company have put into the entire look of the show. It is breathtakingly exquisite. It is also a worthy attempt to wed literature to theatre, and the traditional Japanese art of shadow puppet, costumes, and music to modern dance and multimedia. Although the classic stories by a true master need more dramatization to deliver their emotional punch, the open-hearted sincerity of the piece never slackens, and neither does its spirit of innovation. There are two shows here, and one of them works like a dream.