Humans’ distance laid bare in two close-ups on ‘intimacy’

by Nobuko Tanaka

Theater Project Tokyo’s current, compelling double bill, “TPT Futures 2002,” grapples head-on with how, as time and circumstances change, people deal with the eternally fraught business of maintaining or severing their intimate ties with others.

TPT tackles this basic but universal theme through two contemporary dramas, one Japanese and the other European, being staged separately at its Benisan Pit Studio home in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. Alongside TPT’s usual troupe of actors, the two productions see fresh faces both acting and directing.

“Adam & Eve — My Criminology” is by Shuji Terayama, whose work — encompassing plays, novels and poetry as well as directing for film and theater — took him to the pinnacle of Japan’s vibrant 1960s and ’70s underground arts scene and brought him international renown, until cirrhosis ended his outlaw life in 1983, at the age of 48.

“Adam & Eve” is Terayama’s take on the Book of Genesis. This Garden of Eden, though, is a jerry-built apartment above a pink salon called “Eden” in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district. In this benighted space, drama upon drama unfold around Adam and Eve and their grown-up sons Cain and Abel — all enmeshed in relationships that unflinchingly lay bare the desires, lusts, vulgarities, blood ties, dreams and ideals at the heart of human life.

As in life, contradictions abound, as stygian steam periodically rises from “Eden” below, and the ripe red apples Eve has bought for Adam to munch on just happen to fall down there through a hole in the floor — as do, at one point, both Adam and Abel. Through the swirling clouds of human frailty, though, Terayama’s words cut like truthful shafts of sunlight. While the acting is memorable — especially Anna Nakagawa as an overwhelming Eve, the ultimate female symbol — and Simon Daw’s sloping stage-design is superbly suggestive of the instability of life, Terayama’s verbal alchemy is the play’s outstanding element.

Indeed, such is the power of Terayama’s writing that I felt moved as people often are by Shakespeare. His poetic words guide us through a labyrinthine world, whose map has fate and the essence of human nature marked somewhere — but where? — upon it. This is a paradise of a production not to be missed.

August Strindberg (1849-1912), the Swedish author of “Playing with Fire,” was another pioneer of modern theater, who wrote works on politics, economics and philosophy as well as some 60 plays, poetry and novels. In “Playing with Fire,” the young director, Hirotaka Kumabayashi, comments in the program notes, “The characters use the word ‘love’ a lot, and are seeking ‘love’ with whomsoever they can find it. Simply, though, they ‘love’ someone who loves them, they love being loved — this is their egoism; they seek ‘love’ so as not to feel solitude. I feel close to these egoistic people myself, too.”

Surely he is not alone — except perhaps in his honesty — for Strindberg’s tale is as pertinent today as when it was written 100 years ago. The story is of eternal triangles, involving a rich leisured couple and their male friend, the couple’s parents and a pretty young female relative. All six are spending the summer in a seaside cottage. Trying to escape the ennui of lives they feel have become mired in routine, each tucks into new partners in the hope that forbidden fruit will satisfy their inner hunger.

But, as so often in life, we see that in this sexual pavane — where players make a pretense of love not only to others but to themselves — they end up leading each other a merry dance to nowhere. Driven to romantic experimentation by their dull lives, in the end back they return to the sureties and comforts of those same lives, whether older and wiser, or disillusioned all the more. Safety, it seems, is the web from which none in this bleak but enthralling drama escape.

Again, finely acted and designed (the staging is by Izumi Matsuoka), “Playing with Fire” is as coolly insightful of the individual as “Adam and Eve” is a lightning rod drawing illumination through the swirling clouds of emotion. What’s more, the pairing of the two plays offers stimulating cultural comparisons — Scandinavian existential angst and coolly distanced closeness played off against the characteristically Japanese experience of being both bonded and bound by family ties. Here is as intriguing and insightful a double bill as we’re likely to see this year.