Many of the best theatrical stagings on these shores this year tackled issues having to do with the current chaotic state of the world. The focus of the best productions in Japan was how to understand, communicate and cope with others from quite different cultural and ethnic backgrounds; or, as part of the same question, how to find and establish an identity for ourselves. There was a distinctly refreshing approach in the stylish but hard-hitting work of several young talents and a welcome increase in international collaborations. Here is this critic’s choice of the 10 best.
1) “Angels in America” by Theatre Project Tokyo
Though it was early in the year that I saw the seven-hour-long “Angels in America,” as 2004 draws to a close it is quite easy to award it top spot. Set in mid-1980s Manhattan, this powerful work plunges us deep into a gay world whose happy-go-lucky way of life was thrown into question by the awful new reality of AIDS. Played out on a stage with stunning sets, we see American citizens striving desperately to make sense of this fatal assault on life as they knew it.
Though long, Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer award-winning play — as directed imaginatively and dynamically here by Robert Allan Ackerman — never loses its tension. Speaking last week after his current production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” with the same team at the same downtown venue by the Sumida River, Ackerman modestly attributed the success of his “Angels” to everything apart from himself, saying: “Ultimately, the cast created that miracle stage. Also, the atmosphere of the Pit theater and working with the actors and the staff from t.p.t was certainly exceptional.”
2) “Hataraku Otoko” by Keishi Nagatsuka
In the opening of “Hataraku Otoko (Working Man),” nine young workers who are also lifelong friends are living out in the sticks in northern Honshu and, totally depressed, are forlornly working together in an office. To break out of their humdrum existences, they try to grow a new variety of apple. But they fail. Then they try to run an apple-packing factory. That, too, fails. Then a splendid offer is made that remains a mystery for much of the play: It turns out to be a lucrative trucking contract — but one to dispose of chemical waste.
In a tragic tale of wasted lives in an equally hopeless and screwed-up society, we see that their work “salvation” is also poisoning them. The arrival of 29-year-old Keishi Nagatsuka — this play’s writer and director and founder of the Asagaya Spiders Theatre Company which produced this — is exciting news. Nagatsuka brings his own unique sharpness and a cool sense of humor that’s very much of his generation. After “Hataraku Otoko,” which serves up a powerful and realistic allegory for a lost generation, Nagatsuka also demonstrated his versatility with his direction of Englishman Martin McDonagh’s latest play, “Pillowman.”
3) “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the New National Theatre
The Oresteia by Aeschylus is the basis of this spectacular work by one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century, Eugene O’Neill. Set just after the American Civil War, we find Lavinia (Shinobu Otake) and her mother Christine (Kazuyo Mita) waiting for the master of the house and his son to return from the front. However, Lavinia becomes aware of her mother having an affair during her respected father’s absence and comes to detest Christine. From then on, inside the family, people’s mutual reliance and relationships gradually begin to break down.
What made this production particularly outstanding was the great teamwork of the New National Theatre, with artistic director Tamiya Kuriyama focusing the action clearly and precisely where it should be focused, and the set designer Jiro Shima excelling in his theatrical imagination. Furthermore, the whole cast, especially Otake and Mita, did a splendid job.
4) “Red Demon” at Theatre Cocoon
One day a man different in appearance from the locals is washed up on the beach on an isolated island. As the man speaks a different language and looks so different, the villagers despise him and brand him a “demon.” Only three villagers, That Woman (Tamzin Griffin), her simpleton brother and their friend Mizukane — all three outcasts — befriend the castaway and in the end pay a terrible price, along with him.
Staged by one of the leading lights on the Japanese drama scene, Hideki Noda, the English version was one of three versions he oversaw — the others were in Thai and Japanese. In what was an amazingly conceived and executed triple production, each version was different. However, the English version was especially unforgettable, in large part due to Roger Pulvers’s beautiful, poetic and yet humorously colloquial translation and its English cast’s marvelous acting. The deep sorrow of Griffin’s That Woman will stay in the hearts of those who witnessed it long after the event.
5) “Darumasan ga Koronda” and “Lost in the War” by Rinkogun theater company
Rinkogun presented a roster of consistently high-standard, original plays throughout the year, but outstanding among them were these two documentary-style dramas in its short summer series. “Darumasan ga Koronda” comprised several short sketches related to land mines; while “Lost in the War” recounted several episodes from recent wars. In both, Yoji Sakate, the writer and director of Rinkogun, presented close-ups involving ordinary people caught up in war — a Japanese hostage in Iraq, for example, and an antiwar protester — but always observed with a brilliant and incisive wit.
Feeding a hunger among the general public for documentaries in both film and books, Sakate rose superbly to that challenge with his energetic productions giving Joe Public a voice on cutting-edge subjects allied to his lean and solidly focused directing.
6) “Romeo and Juliet” by JAN
As one of the guests of the Tokyo International Arts Festival, Slovakian dance company JAN, which is led by the charismatic director/choreographer Jan Durovcik, presented “Tanzetheater” (a word invented by Pina Bausch, famed pioneer of this genre of theatrical dance), an erotic, dramatic and soulful “Romeo and Juliet”. Utterly modern and provocative, JAN brought with them the highest technique and energy that has deservedly earned them a place in the top class of the world of international stage.
7) “Shin Meian” by Nitosha
Ai Nagai, a founder of Nitosha and also its scriptwriter and director, here pulled off a rare staging of the loved and revered “Shin Meian,” an unfinished gem of Japanese literature by Soseki Nataume. In this tale of the hero, Tsuda, who goes to see his ex-girlfriend to find out why she dumped him, Nagai’s brilliant sense of humor and amazing insight into human nature — especially that of ordinary people — shines out from start to finish, ensuring superb entertainment for each and everyone in the audience.
8) “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” by Seinendan
Here, the hero, Martin (Kotaro Shiga), is an ordinary middle-aged businessman until he falls in love with Sylvia, a goat. The latest and among the most notable works by the American playwright Edward Albee, this was presented by the Tokyo-based Seinendan Theatre Company in conjunction with their long-term collaborator, the American director Barry Hall. It was above all the marvelous portrayal of a middle-aged couple played by Shiga and Yuriko Osaki that contributed most to the success of this production.
9) “Shoshitsu (Disappearance)” by Nylon 100 degree
Set in the near future in an unspecified foreign country, this play focuses on two orphan brothers living humdrum lives in a town that has been menaced by chemical pollution. One day the younger brother loses all his memory as his circuits switch off because, it turns out, he is in fact an android. And he’s not the only one . . .
Created by another quite new talent in the Japanese drama world, Keralino Sandorovich (as he calls himself) has created a beautiful fable here. Not only is it a memorable human drama, but it also packs a forceful punch with its strong message about the way we are treating the Earth.
10) “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by the Parco Theatre Company
This hit off-Broadway rock musical, staged here with an all-Japanese cast, has its transvestite hero, Hedwig, (Hiroshi Mikami), recounting episodes from his checkered life, including his former love life with a famous rock star, through great songs delivered energetically one after another. Mikami’s performance was what this was all about though and it was absolutely unforgettable.
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