Total eclipse of the art


In a residential area close to the bright lights and buzz of Shibuya, a fascinating theatrical experiment is taking place at the Agora Theater in Tokyo.

Not only an experiment in contemporary drama, but also one in cultural exchange, “Eclipse” is further evidence of Japanese companies’ growing interaction with the foreign drama world. This interchange is not only producing large-scale, 1,000-capacity ballet, opera and drama programs, but is also functioning at a more individual level between young dramatists.

This project, for example, grew out of a meeting in Paris in 1998 between the New York-based American dramatist Barry Hall and Oriza Hirata, the producer of “Eclipse” who is also general manager of the Agora Theater and a leader of the Seinendan Theater Company. Both were among the leading contemporary dramatists invited to France from all the countries competing in that year’s soccer World Cup. (What a brilliant idea to use a worldwide sports event to expand cultural/arts exchange — and what a shame Japan and Korea didn’t follow the French example this year.)

After they met, Hall and Hirata kept in touch, exchanging ideas. “Eclipse” is the first fruit of their collaboration: Hall wrote the play and the Japanese side translated it and is performing it under the direction of Motohiro Hase, a leader of the Momo Uta 309 company who recently spent a year studying in Minneapolis as a Ministry of Culture-sponsored overseas arts trainee. Then, in the runup to the opening night, Hall himself came and joined the project.

“Eclipse” is set in locations around the world, including cities that may — or may not be — Tokyo, New York, Paris, Hong Kong or St. Petersburg. The stage area itself, occupying almost all this cozy theater, with seats for about 60 around it, is divided into several smaller spaces. In each of these, representing a separate city, we follow people’s lives as they unfold.

Or, crucially, we try — never successfully — to follow these stories as they are being acted out separately but simultaneously. Whether we attempt to tune into the drama of a homeless missionary’s life, that of two blue-collar workers (one having an affair; the other constantly trying to pick up girls by sending phone messages), that of a seedy souvenir shop owner, a religious cult member or of ordinary office workers, it is impossible to concentrate and catch all the plot strands as they unravel — or knit together.

To be confronted with this chaos, though, soon makes the audience realize that we live everyday in a similar situation. We all, city-dwellers in particular, are bombarded with so much information in our daily lives that, consciously or unconsciously, we must select what we feel to be most necessary or interesting. This realization dawns as we sit in the Agora trying to make sense of the story lines — if, indeed, there are any. And it prompts us to reflect further on our fragmented, city way of living.

Indeed, Hall said at the post-performance talk that he pieced these city-life collages together as if he were composing a piece of music titled “modern city life.”

However, adding yet another dimension to “Eclipse” are shadowy characters who appear only at the beginning and end — those who are watching and controlling these citizens from above. They seemed like gods at a glance, but actually we realize they are the people who have power — though this power is effectively eclipsed from general view.

Each of its three main creators — Hall, Hirata and Hase — has acknowledged that this play is an experimental work-in-progress. At the after-show discussion, one audience-member probably voiced the reaction of many when she said: “At first I felt uncomfortable because I’d never seen this busy style before, but though it wasn’t regular ‘entertainment,’ as a production it worked well and was very stimulating.”

Signaling a new style of cultural exchange, the possibilities “Eclipse” suggests are nothing if not intriguing.