With sunlight dappling fresh green leaves, flowers in bloom and birds singing, spring and early summer is when Europeans leave their homes to enjoy the arts at great annual events such as Germany’s Theatertreffen and France’s Avignon Festival.
In contrast, though spring in Japan is crowned by Golden Week, the year’s longest holiday, people generally spend those few days of leisure paying sky-high prices to join the tourist hordes at overcrowded resorts overseas.
If you’re not inclined to join those throngs, there’s a wealth of enjoyable culture waiting on your doorstep courtesy of the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji, which runs from April 24 to May 6 at venues including the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Shizuoka, the center’s open-air Udo Theater set amid tea fields in the hills, and its performance space in Nihondaira National Nature Park, which is known for its beautiful views of Mount Fuji.
With leading dramatist, and SPAC artistic director, Satoshi Miyagi at its helm, the country’s foremost international performing-arts event this year features nine main programs from six countries.
Among four from Japan, Miyagi himself is directing SPAC actors in two works he has chosen as being timely in the current climate.
One of these is his new production of “Mefisto For Ever,” a bold 2006 adaptation by Belgian playwright Tom Lanoye of Klaus Mann’s anti-Hitler novel “Mephisto” (1936).
The other is a rerun of Miyagi’s 2009 production of “Futari no Onna” (“Two Ladies”), a socially incisive 1979 masterpiece by ’60s underground theater icon Juro Kara that shifts supernatural stories from the medieval “Tale of Genji” novel to a psychiatric ward.
Putting his play selection in context, Miyagi notes in SPAC’s current newsletter, “It has been 100 years since World War I broke out. In Europe, many are warning ‘the situations in the Europe of 1914 and the Asia of 2014 resemble each other.’ ”
Clearly with that in mind, he explained at a festival press conference last month why he chose to stage “Mefisto For Ever” — based on the life of Gustaf Grundgens (1899-1963), a German actor who became artistic director of the National Theater of the Third Reich.
“With today’s Japan moving from pacifism to a country being positioned to possibly join a war, I wanted to examine Germany in the 1930s as it moved toward world war, and what happened in its theaters and how people there acted under such an autocratic regime,” Miyagi said.
“I thought that we, especially people working at public theaters (like SPAC) can learn lots from this play — and although I can’t do much by myself, I hope this production leads people to think about the role of theater and art in today’s hazardous Japan.”
Adding further to the abundant lure of Shizuoka will be “An Angel Comes to Babylon,” a 1953 absurdist comedy-drama by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. Directed by former SPAC student Makoto Nakashima — now artistic director of Tori no Gekijou (Bird Theater Company) in Tottori — this classic work melds pop sensibilities and philosophical questions of meaning.
However, in line with SPAC’s motto that “This theatre is Your theatre,” no festival lineup of Miyagi’s would be complete without a participation program.
This time that’s in the form of actor-guided “walking plays” for “audience” groups in the residential Ikeda district of Shizuoka created by Tokyo-based Torikoen (Bird Park) theater company’s director/playwright Kaori Nishio along with the Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture-based duo of architect Tasuku Ohigashi and site-specific artist Ichirota Suzuki.
But with the work being titled “What if you know who shows up from the corner of room 51 at 9 in the morning,” don’t be surprised to encounter the unexpected on this whirlwind tour.
Meanwhile, the festival’s lineup from abroad is led by a piece that takes participation to a whole different realm in the form of French dramatist Daniel Jeanneteau’s version of “The Blind,” a one-act play from 1890 by Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck.
Due to be staged six times only in an open-air performance space created amid woodland in the Nihondaira National Nature Park, this production with an all-Japanese cast follows the work’s premiere at the director’s Studio-Theatre de Vitry base in the Paris suburbs last year.
Back then, Jeanneteau used lots of smoke to make it hard for his indoor audiences to see clearly. This time, he will create the same effect naturally, deep in a forest where 12 unnamed blind people are found wandering.
“About 100 people will have this unique and extraordinary theater experience together each time,” said Jeanneteau at the aforementioned press conference. “First, the audience will be led into the dark woods with the actors, who will be mingling among them looking just the same. When the audience gets to the performing space they’ll be asked to sit where they like on simple stools and benches before the play gradually starts as unseen actors speak.
“Though I think anyone can easily relate to the play, it’s actually dealing with people’s deep psyche — about the hidden thoughts in their daily lives,” the director added.
In addition to “The Blind,” three other eye-opening Japan premieres from abroad await the festival’s Golden Week audiences in the shape of Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-chen’s superbly sophisticated dance work “Song of Pensive Beholding”; hot-ticket “Page 7,” a sharply ironic version from Lebanon of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”; and “The Ventriloquists’ School,” a work by Chilean filmmaker and author Alejandro Jodorowsky being staged by Belgium’s acclaimed Point Zero theater company using life-size puppets.
As a final treat, the leading South Korean dramatist Lee Yuntaek will present his masterful adaptation of Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta’s award-winning play “Komachi Fuden” (“The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind”).
By incorporating Korean songs and masks into this powerful and moving work centered on an old woman’s reminiscences of her passionate past, Lee creates a vividly universal play with which to bring this year’s World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji to a triumphant close.
World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji runs April 24 to May 6. For details of venues, tickets (¥1,000-¥4,100, plus concessions) and free bus services between venues and other attractions such as tea-picking, call SPAC on 054-202-3399 or visit www.spac.or.jp.
Plays continue after festival curtain call
If its theater festival awakens you to the prefecture’s creative allure, Shizuoka Performing Arts Center will happily welcome you back to its Open-air Performing Arts Festival under Mt. Fuji, which runs from May 15 to 24.
As the highlight of this rich theatrical and cultural feast, audiences will be able to see SPAC artistic director Satoshi Miyagi’s marvelous staging of the Sanskrit epic “Mahabharata — Nalacharitam” — not in a quarry, which was the setting for its triumph at last year’s Avignon Festival in France — but at a purpose-made site in Shizuoka’s beautiful Sumpujo-Park.
On top of that, the festival will also feature top companies from France, Cameroon and India performing al fresco — and for free.
So, in a busy city-center shopping street, the Ilotopie Company from France will appear bearing (living actors’) bodies heaped with food for passerbys to eat off them, while in nearby Shimizu Marine Park the Cameroonian choreographer Merlin Nyakam will perform his new work “Dancing Africa” and the Natanakairali troupe from India will present a traditional puppet-theater version of the “Mahabharata.”
All in all, for a month from April 24, Shizuoka will be the destination of choice for lovers of open-air performing arts. (N.T.)
For details of the Open-air Festival, visit www.spac.or.jp or call SPAC at 054-202-3399.