For American drama fans, the ultimate contemporary theater experience would be to have seen a Tennessee Williams play directed by the author; for Europeans, it would be to have caught a Samuel Beckett drama staged by the playwright. For Japanese theatergoers, the equivalent would be to have seen a Shuji Terayama play produced by his theater company, Tenjosajiki. This is because, before his untimely death from cirrhosis at age 47 in 1983, Terayama single-handedly revolutionized Japanese contemporary drama. He brought to the stage a completely new dimension of ideas that qualifies him to take a place among the world’s theatrical greats.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Terayama’s death and the 30th anniversary of the Parco Theater in Shibuya, the theater is hosting a new staging by Tenjosajiki of Terayama’s “Aohige Kou no Shiro (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle).” And for fans who didn’t experience the work of the master himself, this is about as close as they are likely to get, because this production’s director and musical director, J.A. Caesar — who founded the theater company Universal Gravitation in 1983 — had until then worked with Terayama at Tenjosajiki both as a sound director and codirector. There’s no danger of either imitation or slavish homage here, because Cesar has married his own understanding of this profound work to Terayama’s distinctive, decadent tastes, adding modern sensibility and brilliant casting.
Terayama got his idea for the play, first performed in 1979, from the 1911 opera of the same name by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), which in turn was based on the fairy tale “Bluebeard” by French author Charles Perrault (1628-1703). In this tale, the tyrannical, six-times- married Bluebeard still has several spouses around when a seventh candidate appears on the scene.
As if this wasn’t complicated enough, Terayama twists the tale further — what we have here is a play within a play, because what we see on stage is a theater group preparing a production of “Bluebeard.” As the curtain rises, we see a young woman who has come to a theater to step into the role of the seventh wife in a play called “Aohige Kou no Shiro.” As the drama unfolds, she meets the other characters, the other six wives (alive and dead), and even the woman who will be the eighth wife — though she never meets Bluebeard in the play itself.
The plot thickens, however, as the actress encounters things murderously amiss not only in the tale of Bluebeard, but among the group of players she’s joined. And so it is that we, the audience, are led into a maze of mystery, a multilevel theatrical world filled with illusion.
As a play about a girl fascinated by the magic of the stage, “Aohige Kou no Shige” is a fitting production to celebrate Parco Theater’s 30th anniversary. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Parco was a Mecca for the cream of Japan’s avante garde and its underground artists. It launched many careers, as well as serving as the epicenter of fashionable, artistic youth culture.
Reflecting this rich creative history is Caesar’s imaginative casting. So it is, for example, that the cast features such nonactors as male model Shin and supermodel Sachi (playing the doll-like sixth wife wrapped in bandages like a mummy), and young classical music singer Miho Asai in her first stage role. As the third wife, Asai contributes not only her beautiful voice, but also her chubby good looks — an appealing contrast to the other, uniformly slender actresses. The icing on the cake is the vocal unit Flip Flap, comprising twins Yuko and Aiko, making their theatrical debut as story guides dressed like gothic kosupure maids. These nonacting performers bring a spirit to the production that is entirely in tune with the Parco heritage.
Leading actors take the three principal wives’ roles: Keiko Oginome (as the first wife), Natsuko Akiyama (as the fifth) and actor Hiroshi Mikami as the transvestite second wife/boyfriend. All turn in splendid performances: Oginome conveys an insanity that is almost charming, Akiyama is a portrait of weak-mindedness, and Mikami’s perverted portrayal steals the show. Elegant in his movements, and speaking with a clear, strong voice, he nonetheless plumbs the murky depths of human nature. Although at times it seemed that Terayama’s philosophical and poetic nuances might be drowned out by this production’s mighty sound effects, Mikami’s presence stands out through it all.
Also noteworthy are Kozue Hibino’s imaginative, weblike costumes — a dash of cutting-edge fashion again entirely befitting Parco’s cultural heritage.
With so much to applaud, though, its frustrating that this production follows Tenjosajiki custom and closes without a curtain call. Whatever the director’s thinking, the audience should be given a chance to show its appreciation of theater, especially when it’s as good as this.
“Aohige Kou no Shiro” runs till April 17 at the Parco Theater, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. Ticket are 7,500 yen. For more details, call Parco Theater at (03) 3477-5858, or visit www.parco-city.co.jp/play
Mansai Nomura, the renowned kyogen actor and artistic director of Setagaya Public Theater, is holding a drama workshop April 6 together with Shoichiro Kawai, a leading Shakespeare scholar and translator, and the actor Kotaro Yoshida, who has played many Shakespearean roles. The topic of the workshop is “Translation for the Stage,” with an emphasis on Shakespeare translation.