nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
April 29, 2006
Having been to Japan once but not really knowing a lot about it, I went to Sundown, Yara Arts Group’s new performance piece about Japan’s first photographer, Hikoma Ueno, hoping I would learn something more about its history and people. Yara Arts Group’s skillful method of theatrical presentation, which integrates dance, puppetry, multimedia elements, and spoken word, makes for a very interesting experience. While I don’t think I "got" every last cultural reference, it didn’t matter; the main interest of the piece is to dramatize Hikoma Ueno’s evolution from chemist to artist to philosopher, and this journey is shared by the audience regardless of any details which might slip through the cracks of translation.
Which is not to say that Sundown is a consistently gripping experience. The tone could be described as contemplative, which clearly is the intent of its creators, but at the performance I attended, the deliberately meditative mood and pace bordered on sleepy. Much more a performance art piece than a traditional play, I suppose one should accept it purely on its own terms, especially since it is so well done. Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing it were a little more concerned with keeping its audience engaged throughout.
The most remarkable thing about Sundown is the way it looks: this clearly is the work of accomplished designers. The piece contains some exquisitely beautiful images. The composition in the staging, which takes place mostly on a bare stage with a scrim at the rear, is flawless, and Watoku Ueno (no relation to Hikoma Ueno), who is both lighting designer and director, has created some intensely lyrical moments involving shadow puppets and light. One particular image of Hikoma Ueno, in a dream, jumping from a huge seaship, was the highlight of the experience for me. Only highly skilled artists can create a moment so simple yet so eloquent.
Hikoma Ueno’s family was known for portrait-painting, and, as a chemist who developed his own method of photography—wet-plate—he continued the family tradition in another, more modern, medium. The first part of Sundown is background information imparted by the company of six actors on the difference between daguerreotype photography and the wet-plate technique which Hikoma Ueno introduced. (The former process produced a single image on a metal plate and required the subject to remain completely still for minutes; the latter was a messy process, but it instantly captured a visual moment and the images could be reproduced.) While this may not seem like fodder for dramatic treatment, it places Hikoma Ueno in his important position in the history of Japanese photography. It also introduces two elegant ideas: Ueno’s notion that photography is painting without a brush and more truthful than painting, and that hashin, the Japanese word for photography, means "reflecting the truth."
The second section depicts Ueno’s interactions with his subjects, some of whom are skeptical of the process, some of whom are delighted to have their spirit preserved forever in an image. A few "stories behind the photos" are enacted, including a lovely vignette with two young women; the moment at the end of their scene when the wonderful authentic photo of the two women they portray appears projected above the stage is striking. The photo projections are by Makoto Takeuchi.
Ueno’s philosophical journey as an artist—in which he considers photography in relation to art, time, spiritual beliefs, and history—is the abstract final section of Sundown, and it contains some of the most beautiful imagery in the show. Powerful video projection effects and the aforementioned lighting and shadow puppet work made a deep impression on me.
There is a good bit of stylized movement and dance created by Asami Morita, which is graceful and effective. The costumes by Luba Kierkosz, most of them traditional kimonos, are beautiful. Composer/violinist Storm Garner’s thoughtful live accompaniment to the entire performance makes this distinctive production even more special.
The performers are strong, particularly Nick Bosco as Ueno and Kazue Tani as a beautiful “bird woman” based on the traditional Japanese symbolic figure of the white crane. The entire ensemble commits fully to this atmospheric piece, allowing the vision of Sundown’s creators—and Hikoma Ueno’s photography—to transport and enlighten the audience.