Two European time-and-emotion studies

by Nobuko Tanaka

It’s my pleasure to introduce two plays you really must see this month, if not today. Well, one today, and one tomorrow, perhaps, so as not to be too greedy.

That’s even though greed is the key factor in “The Golovlyov Family” by Ai Nagai who, at age 51, is probably the fastest-rising force in Japanese contemporary drama. Besides running Nitosha, her Tokyo-based theater company, her witty, insightful style — especially when cutting to the quick of the modern Japanese experience — ensures she is also constantly in demand to write and direct for other companies.

Here, the ensemble of actors and technicians she has brought to the New National Theater’s small Pit theater have together created a theatrical gem.

Based on a little-known semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by a 19th-century Russian satirist and critic named Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-89), “The Golovlyov Family” is Nagai’s first original, foreign-based work — though she came close in 2001 with her multi-awardwinning “Hagi-ke no Sanshimai (Three Sisters of the Hagi Family),” a version of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” set in contemporary Japan.

Here, however, Nagai has not tampered with the original — except to condense the epic-length tale into 2 1/2 hours of universal human drama — 2 1/2 hours which, thanks to the quality of this staging, seem to fly.

“The Golovlyov Family” is a two-generation family drama. The first act mainly tells the story of a landowner named Arina (Haruko Kato) who, driven by naked avarice, hugely increases the family’s estates. It’s the misfortune of her husband and her older and younger sons to be pleasant, sensitive people. Driven by her to various extremes, they die one after the other. That just leaves the second son, Porphyry (Tomohiko Imai), who is even more greedy than his mother, and who hounds her off the estate.

When Arina returns to deliver a fatal curse, her offspring beats her at her own game and she dies — still at a loss to see where she went wrong.

The second act focuses on Porphyry as he continues his heedless amassing of riches. He is increasingly shunned by those around him until he’s in a paranoid world of his own.

Finally, he heads off on foot in winter on a one-way trip to seek solace at his mother’s grave — still at a loss to see where he went wrong.

Throughout the play, Nagai marvelously depicts both the details and universalities of the human condition, drawing the complexities of each character. For example, whenever Porphyry is about to embark on some new self-seeking enterprise, he crosses himself and enlists God in his support. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in drawing parallels here between this and a superpower that declares itself on a crusade for freedom, when its aim is clearly to obtain black gold.

For the most part set in a simply rendered dining room, the production is memorable for the brilliant and harmonized acting, not just Kato’s Arina and Imai’s Porphyry, but also Kazuyuki Asano and Gotaro Tsunashima as the other, ill-fated brothers, and Hitoshi Takagi as Ilya, the old servant. As well, the lighting is a major player here, not just in how — together with sonorous Slavic folk music — it creates atmosphere, but also for the way it conveys each character’s inner self.

The plot may be unremittingly bleak, but as pure theater this is an entirely uplifting experience that sends you away chastened by human baseness, but with spirits enriched. Certainly, it’s not one to miss.

“The Golovlyov Family” runs till July 6 at the New National Theater, a 1-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. Tickets 3 yen,150-5,250 yen. Details from the National Theater box office, (03) 5352-9999, or see www.nntt.jac.go.jp

Across town at the Benisan Pit we have another human drama, this one from Germany — and one that, rather than being a narrative, is more socially metaphysical and disturbing in an objective Brechtian way.

Invited to the home of Theater Project Tokyo by its founder, Hitoshi Kadoi, 37-year-old Thomas Oliver Niehaus (who was featured on this page May 7) chose for his Japanese collaboration debut Botho Strauss’s “Die Zeit und das Zimmer (Time and the Room),” written in West Germany in 1988, just before reunification.

As the curtains opens, we see a minimalist set. There are two translucent sliding doors bracketing the ends of the stage, with a bare gray floor between and a gravel path separating the actors’ space from the “real” world of the auditorium. Additionally, there are white blocks, which are rearranged to form walls, partitions or tables. The back wall, too, changes — sometimes showing a projected view of an office block, sometimes a great, gray steel sliding door, and sometimes just nothing, like a black hole of the subconscious.

The play develops through a series of short episodes, mainly concerning the relationships between the mysterious young heroine, Marie Steuber (Tomoko Nakajima), and a disparate string of men. In the second act, eight independent episodes are introduced one after another. In one, Marie is leaving her apartment for a yearlong holiday, but before she goes, she and the young man she’s leased it to fall in love. In another, three men awaiting a job interview are making stupid conversation, unaware that the woman behind them is actually the company president (Marie).

What Niehaus sees here is an exploration of the relationship between individuality, solitude, common values and community. These, he says, “are themes that are coming up more and more in Japan.”

Certainly, the net effect of all these discrete, fleeting stories — many of them absurd; some metaphysical — is to profoundly, if intangibly, express the anxiety and vague sense of dishonesty that permeates much of our complicated modern lives.

The play’s rapid-fire construction induces a kind of sensory dyspepsia. After the show I heard several troubled-looking people commenting that it was “so deep, so profound,” and I guess that that uncomfortable feeling, with so much left in our minds undigested, was precisely what Niehaus was aiming at. He wanted to give his Japanese audiences something to chew over long after they’d left the theater.

In what by any standards must be a challenging role, Nakajima gave an excellent, nuanced performance, while Masayuki Shionoya was also notably persuasive.

All in all, though, this is not an easy work. But I’d say the Benisan Pit is a good place to start if you’re seeking a fresh experience of the theater — one that questions established notions of what it is that constitutes a play.