100 Aspects of the Moon
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 9, 2005
A provincial archer is summoned by the Emperor to rescue the Moon, which has been taken hostage. A captain falls in love with an obstinate poetess who has renounced romance and vows to stand outside her window wooing her for a hundred days. A poor man brings his aged mother to the top of a mountain to die.
These are just a few of the many stories contained in Ethan Lipton's magical new play 100 Aspects of the Moon, which is being presented by Clubbed Thumb as part of its Summerworks festival. All of the stories are inspired by the work of Yoshitoshi, a Japanese woodblock printmaker who died in 1892. Like the prints themselves (which you can see some examples of here), the vignettes are exotic, colorful, bold, and fragmentary—some are presented in phases while others play themselves out quickly and disappear. All blend, provocatively, modern-day American pop culture references with Japanese mythology and traditions (the play reminded me of the works of Chiori Miyagawa in this regard), so that a defeated Japanese warrior about to commit hara-kiri is attended by a servant who spouts colloquialisms and wears a "Pink Floyd" t-shirt. All mix humor—quirky wit and bald slapstick—with a more contemplative poetic style of writing. The best are stunningly lyrical and moving.
What's the purpose of this excursion into Japanese culture by way of American pop? Lipton and his director, Emma Griffin, never really make the answer clear. I took it to be a sort of zen thing: it just is.
Griffin's staging parallels the script's mix of styles, incorporating some breathtaking Eastern theatrical effects (like a chorus of stagehands holding long-handled baskets from which they delicately sift paper snowflakes to create a snowstorm). Transitions between the scenes usually involve cast-members rearranging the wood blocks that constitute the main "set" for the show (the imaginative, stark design is by Tom Gleeson); this generally seemed to take longer than felt right to me—is there a more elegant way to move the pieces around, I wonder?
Seven actors portray some two dozen roles, offering some grand challenges and opportunities to them. Matthew Maher is splendid as the homely archer, Hou Yi, whose reward for rescuing the Moon turns out to be a gift from the gods. He's also fine as Kamuro, a little boy who has apparently been adopted by a geisha or prostitute following the deaths of his parents. April Matthis is excellent as the prostitute and also as the Old Mother being carried up the mountain by her son, Skinny; and Gibson Frazier excels as Skinny and as Hidetsugu, the defeated warrior who must commit ritual suicide. Kate Hampton is terrific as Hou Yi's grasping wife, Chang E. Rounding out the cast are Tim Kang (whose is equally at home playing a Japanese housewife, the lovelorn captain, and a blind warrior), Chris Wells (best as the housewife's expansive husband), and Joanna P. Adler (who shines as their son, Mitchi). I wondered why Kang's cross-gender casting was included, as it's the only instance in the play.
100 Aspects of the Moon is dazzlingly theatrical and richly entertaining, and that proves to be enough for a highly satisfying evening. It will be interesting to see if the play is developed further beyond this new works festival; I'd certainly want to see where it goes from here.