Heavenly Robe, Carmonk and Blackhole
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
August 29, 2008
Heavenly Robe, Carmonk, and Blackhole, three classical works of Noh drama, are modernized so that the traditionally snail's-paced stories are made fast and playful. Although the initial portion of my experience led me to anticipate something interesting and well-organized, the remainder of the evening fell short of that expectation.
After standing and waiting in the small, crowded, hot lobby area of the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator, the doors to the theatre were held open, permitting a cool burst of air-conditioning to brush the eager audience. As I walked in, a cold Sapporo beer was opened and then given to me, along with a kind smile. I was ushered through the playing space, around actors moving slowly from one side of the stage to the other in an interesting tip-toeing/falling step. Don't get the impression that I'm complaining about the lobby. At the time, I thought the transition from lobby to theatre was intentional and quite intelligent, because upon entering the theatre I was especially relieved and happy to be there. My pre-show experience seemed to me very well-orchestrated. It gave me a powerfully positive attitude towards what was ahead.
According to the Director's Note, "the ultimate goal of this project is to discover, research, and present the concept of monsters…how we grasp and understand the entities in the context of real life." Having seen bits from a documentary film on the original Noh theatre piece about different monsters, I was truly thrilled to have it performed.
Typically, Noh theatre is stylized and slow as paint drying, but incredibly specific with its movement and engaging in a meditative manor.
Slowly, as in Noh, with a single pitch ringing in our ears, the dancers in motion since our entrance came to a halt. I was captivated and prepared for a slow, yet specific, production. Gradually the dancers transitioned into more dynamic movement. From here on out, the production seemed to aim at the antithesis of the feeling of Noh. That is, with the exception of the background video of very stiff slowly moving men in a theatrical space with a clear Japanese aesthetic, which reminded the audience how these plays were originally performed, and provided a stark contrast to the stage action.
But, the modernized stories were executed so poorly that any effect the contrast may have had was lost. Heavenly Robe is the story of a young man receiving a magical robe, Carmonk is about a monk trying to please his irritable wife with the assistance of his incompetent servant, and Black Hole presents a wanderer being let in by a stranger who turns out to be a monster.
There were a few well-executed moments, such as when the servant/clown in Carmonk used the monk's cocaine and exploded into a beautiful dance fervor. A small band accompanied the entire show, with a "Girl from Ipanema" -esque melody, dreary piano chords, and other effective contributions to the playful atmosphere. In Carmonk, the band was louder than the actor's voices, which created a very interesting lack of importance to the dialogue. It was audible, but definitely not the main focus.
But most importantly, what happened to the monsters? The third story is a typical tale of a wanderer staying in a stranger's house, only to find the stranger not as she appears. She turns out to be monster who kills him. During this segment the accusation was launched at the audience "You are all monsters" from the projection screen onstage. Aside from leaps of logic to attribute the subject matter to other stories, this was the only portion of the play that connected to the Director's Note I quoted earlier. In the first story there was a benevolent magical woman and in the second a monk's wife who was quite monstrously cruel to him. But to claim that this piece as a whole addressed the concept of monsters I find quite odd. The third story provided the most stereotypical monster possible. It never tried to justify the monster's perspective or humanize the monster in any way. The accusation that all members of the audience are monsters could very well be made thought-provoking, but in the context of this show was totally without basis or substance.
There was definitely a rejection of a tradition being put forth with this piece. But merely the fact that these plays are playful and disorganized in contrast to the rigidity of Noh theatre does not make them effective. Nor do they address what they were purported to.