When three women are company, not a crowd

by Nobuko Tanaka

After a one-month break, I got back to my old haunts last weekend and was delighted to encounter — by pure chance — two “three-women” plays on Tokyo stages.

First, at Le Thea^tre Ginza, was American playwright Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer prizewinning “Three Tall Women,” a two-act masterpiece directed here by Masaya Takahashi. This production is effectively “Three Tall Women: Take 2,” as it follows a hit staging in 1996/97 of the same play at the same theater (then called the Ginza Saison Theater) for which the same leading actress, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, won both a Yomiuri drama award and a Mainichi arts award for her performance.

In the play’s first act, we find three tall women of different ages gathered in the sumptuous bedroom of a mansion. The room’s pink decor, flowery fabrics and heart-shaped cushions celebrate its occupant’s very girlish taste. However, the woman we see sitting center-stage in her favorite chair and wearing a frilly chiffon nightie is no young damsel, but a 92-year-old widow (Kuroyanagi), attended by a middle-aged servant (Satomi Awachi) and a young woman from her lawyer’s office (Ran Shindo), who are listening to her reminiscences.

While the servant humors her longtime mistress, the young lawyer is impatient with the old lady’s long-winded ramblings, although in that muddy stream of her disjointed thoughts, words of wisdom occasionally gleam like flecks of gold. Kuroyanagi’s talent shines out as well. Besides transforming herself into a frail, well-born American lady, her diction simply sparkles.

The audience is drawn imperceptibly but wholly into this elderly woman’s memory. Then, when we move forward to the second act, in which the three tall women stand by the widow on her deathbed. All three are tall, as they each represent the old lady at different stages of her life: an ambitious 26-year-old; a woman of 52 weighed down by ennui; and a distinguished older woman of indeterminate age (the bearer, surely, of wisdom gleaned from the previous decades of life).

The three each talk about the widow’s life from their own differing perspectives — a neat theatrical trick that illuminates the process of growing old and the value of learning from experience. Thanks to Albee’s masterful insight and Kuroyanagi’s great performance, “Three Tall Women” reveals itself as worthy prizewinner in praise of living

“Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee runs till Oct. 26 at Le Thea^tre Ginza, a 2-minute walk from Kyobashi Station on the Ginza subway line. Tickets from 8,500 yen to 17,000 yen. For more details, call Parco Theater at (03) 3477-5858 or visit www.parco-city.co.jp/play/

The other tale of three women now playing in Tokyo is a version of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at Setagaya Public Theater. Also a second take, this is a restaging of 2000′s Kinokuniya drama-award-winning production, again directed by its writer, Ai Nagai.

As I mentioned in reviewing her latest production, “The Glolovlyov Family,” in June, Nagai is known for her witty depictions of the essence of modern Japanese people and society, and her “Three Sisters of The Hagi Family” was hailed as “the voice of Japanese women” and a masterpiece of “feminist theater.” While retaining Chekhov’s original framework, Nagai inserts a scene of modern Japanese women struggling against their male-dominated society instead of Tsarist social strictures.

Interestingly, when Chekhov read “The Three Sisters” to his actors for the first time, they commented that it was surely not a script, but merely a synopsis, as it lacked both dramatic content and surprise. Here, Nagai changes none of that, being content with humdrum conversations and uneventful happenings.

In her characteristic, humorous way, Nagai sets her characters to discussing the nonsense and paradoxes in Japanese society. For example, the middle sister, Nakako (Asako Minamitani), is a homemaker trying to be an “ideal wife” (indeed, she’s called “Mama” by her husband). In practice, though, Nakako has never really accepted her husband as an equal partner; she’s started an affair with a childhood friend and still can’t see where her path lies.

The eldest sister, Takako (Eriko Watanabe), is an associate professor of feminism. When one of her students asks two young men: “When you hear these words, do you associate them with boy or a girl?: ‘Pink?’ — ‘Girl!’; ‘Blue?’ — ‘Boy.’ ” Takako is profoundly disillusioned to realize that, despite all supposed progress, these remain the “correct” answers.

Through such episodes (and another excellent one in a museum exhibition room), Nagai cleverly lays bare the banal backwardness of modern Japan. But here, of course, she is not talking only about women — the secondary characters and the relations between men and women give us an insight into the plight of the Japanese male as well.

Far from delivering a polemic, however, Nagai serves up wit and careful observation that ensure the audience is never bored. Coupled with excellent acting — especially by Eriko Watanabe as the eldest sister — this vibrant family drama is an amusing and insightful 2 1/2 hours to delight any theatergoer. Altogether, what a wonderful, womanly way to come back from a late summer’s break!