Theater greats raise curtain on the new year

by Nobuko Tanaka

Have you made your first visit of the new year to the theater yet? If not, “Umi yorimo nagai yoru (The Night Longer than the Sea),” being staged by Seinendan at Theater Tram in Sangenjaya, will surely whet your appetite for what promises to be a lively and exciting year on the Tokyo drama scene.

A 1999 masterpiece by Seinendan’s leader, Oriza Hirata, this one-act play is, he says, a “homage” to the autobiographical novel “Shanghai no Nagai Yoru (Life and Death in Shanghai)” by Chinese author Nien Cheng, which is also an exploration of the mass psychology of the Cultural Revolution (1966-77) in Maoist China.

Here, though, the setting is the lounge of a women’s college dormitory house somewhere in small-town Japan. The dormitory faces a crisis — it is scheduled to be demolished to facilitate the enlargement of a U.S. military base. A group of residents who oppose the demolition gather together around a table to debate what to do.

The original idea is to expand their cause into a more broadly based citizens’ movement involving other residents’ groups and people from other sectors, such as those active in nature conservation. However, as they sit and discuss the issues and the way forward, both the vision of the members and the cohesion of the group weaken, and members begin to leave, each saying “sorry,” but not stating their real reason.

Hirata, who is also directing this finely acted production, explains in the program notes: “I was thinking a lot about the relationship between groups and individuals around the time of the sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 and ’99, when I wrote this play.” Through this mundane plot (in the ’90s, critics termed Hirata’s style “quiet drama in which people speak quietly”) he nonetheless explores no less than that central phenomenon of Japanese identity: the relationship between the group and the individual.

First, we see the characters drawn together as allies sharing the same goal of preventing the demolition of their home. But ironically, once these individuals become part of an organization, it becomes immediately impotent as each member is restrained by the group, or collective thinking.

These kinds of ideas and ways of behavior are everywhere in Japanese society: at school or company meetings, in politics at every level, in the nation’s diplomacy — and, as Hirata points out in his notes, among the members of Aum Shinrikyo. Indeed, Hirata also confesses, and rues, that even his authority within his theater company is a kind of dictatorship, which influences its entire style.

In the end, what we see here is that wa (harmony) becomes the basis of the group’s existence; its very raison d’e^tre. In this play, in order to maintain harmony a key leader decides to leave the group because he is having an affair with one of its members, and this is regarded by him (and by all) as bringing shame on the group. In another episode, a woman visits the group looking to join. She had previously been in another volunteer organization, but had become so obsessed with it that it led to her divorce. This time, she decides against joining — because the atmosphere is not friendly enough.

Throughout, what is most symbolic is the “sumimasen (sorry)” offered by each of those who leave the group, even for an unavoidable reason such as a company transfer. This ritual apology is issued to whom? Is it to an invisible dictator called Wa? The answer may be as obscure as the workings of Japanese society itself — though less obscure, perhaps, to those watching this radical and inspiring drama.

“Umi yorimo nagai yoru (The Night Longer than the Sea)” runs till Jan. 19 at Theater Tram, a 2-minute walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Tokyu Denentoshi Line. Tickets 2,000 yen to 4,000 yen. For more details, call Seinendan on (03) 3469-9107, or visit www.seinendan.org

With the applause still echoing from New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music theater, where his new version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” closed a headlining run at the end of the year, Yukio Ninagawa has already kicked off his 2003 season at his home base of the Theater Cocoon in Shibuya. His choice is “The Cherry Orchard,” the last and arguably the best-known play by Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

The audience at Bunkamura was gathered for what was probably the start of their 2003 theater season, too. Some exchanged New Year greetings and many voiced their pleasure at the simple, elegant set of the drama that awaited them — a simple, pale-gray floor and walls, white-painted furniture, and only a few vases of pink cherry branches lending color.

The back wall of the stage was open, providing a view into the empty backstage storage area and, beyond, the street outside with people walking by. Just before the play started, though, a large gray wall with tall double-doored windows was lowered, transforming the stage into a dim saloon and the real world beyond the mansion wall into the cherry orchard. Faint light seeped through the windows’ shutters and dawn broke on this tragicomedy, set in a now rundown mansion deep in the countryside of a Russia in flux as the old tsarist order approaches its violent end.

However, though Ninagawa wonderfully evokes this time and place through Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s set and costumes designed by Lily Komine, he is far from lost in the romance of it all. As we see from the very start, he employs discordant Brechtian “catabolic” effects to remind everyone that what they are watching is fiction — not only does he expose the backstage and street behind the set, but stagehands are also in plain view.

“The Cherry Orchard,” written in 1904, focuses on the relationship between Ranevskaya (Rei Asami), the last of a line of landowning gentry, and Lopakhin (Teruyuki Kagawa), the son of one of her serfs, who has bought her out. Ninagawa portrays Lopakhin as young and ambitious, but still in awe of Ranevskaya, who he’s looked up to and admired all his life. For all Lopakhin’s regard for Ranevskaya, however, the class gap between them has prevented the two from ever truly being able to understand each other.

The audience realizes that the differences between the characters finds symbolic expression in their different feelings toward the cherry orchard, which is viewed alternately as a place of nostalgic memories, an economic resource, a traditional feature of landowning luxury, and so on.

The result of Ninagawa’s approach is to center the drama on Ranevskaya and the attentions the others pay to her. Asami surely lives up to even Ninagawa’s expectations, as she plays the attractive widow superbly. Her (and his) Ranevskaya is not the usual genteel woman in decline, trapped in the past, but someone who — though she may have run out of funds to keep her estate — is about to embark on a new stage in her life with a lover in Paris.

The strength of Ninagawa’s “Cherry Orchard” is its revelation of how these two people, from vastly differing backgrounds, are unable to alter their attitudes with anything like the speed of social change around them. The price of that focus is that other characters remain a little too underdeveloped. Nonetheless, Ninagawa presents Chekhov’s world faithfully, and in subtle detail.