Last night I went to see This Lingering Life, a Theatre Yugen production. It’s the third performance that I’ve seen from this amazing, unique local theatre. I don’t know a lot about traditional Japanese theatre performances but each time that I go, I’m able to learn a little bit more and gain so much appreciation for this niche art.
The first Yugen performance that I saw and this new one were very different from each other but had one striking similarity that stood out as especially creative for me. They each weave in many different inspirations and elements to create one story that’s been influenced by many other stories.
In the case of This Lingering Life, there are nine acts and each of these acts has been inspired by a different traditional 15th century Noh play. The traditional plays are different types of Noh plays (warrior, diety, mad woman …), written by different authors and exploring different themes. In this play, each act is a modern Western interpretation of one of those plays, woven together to create a themed storyline.
I find this interweaving of stories so intriguing. It shows that a great deal of thought and research and preparation went into the making of the performance before anyone even hit the stage.
Noh Theatre Made New
Like I said, I don’t know a lot about Japanese theatre, but I’m learning, and last night’s show was a chance to explore traditional Noh theatre turned on its head a little bit.
One of the traditional elements was the minimalist stage. There was a flat wooden stage and at each corner hung a long pendulum. The characters came on and off that stage. There were very few props (a bowl of milk, a cane) so that each prop that did appear became poignant and powerful. Costuming was a combination of traditional (masks, classic Noh clothing) and contemporary (backpackers, teenagers).
Noh typically has a tree painted on to the back wall. In this case, there was a beautiful large sculptural tree partially hidden behind a black screen. It created an interesting appearance of depth for the play. Lighting was used to highlight it in different ways from beginning to end.
It’s hard to explain exactly what the play is about because my experience was one of letting it all kind of sink in without trying to attend linearly to each story. The nine stories are separate from one another but they also relate to one another through the theme of karma. The play essentially asks the question, “what is the right way to live, especially if we are responsible for our current actions in a future life?” There isn’t an answer given, per se, but the stories explore the consequences of different choices.
The Back Story
This Lingering Life was written by Chiori Miyagawa, who writes in the play’s program that the play “is an autobiography of my theatrical mind. By extension, it is a biography of everyone who lives and dies”. In this piece of writing, she also explains some interesting back story. She is from Japan but only discovered Noh theatre about a decade ago through an American troupe.
A couple of years ago she met Jubilith, the director and narrator of this play, who is a “white woman from upstate New York who is a traditionally trained Noh performer”. (Incidentally, Jubilith is the neighbor of a friend of mine and the reason I learned about Theatre Yugen in the first place.) Miyagawa writes, “I don’t think our collaboration could have succeeded if we had met sooner, because I suspect in the years leading up to our encounter, Jubilitih was too Japanese and I too American, and compromising would have been a challenge.” But they did compromise and collaborate and This Lingering Life is the beautiful result.
What I Liked Most
I really loved the complexity of this play in terms of the way that the stories were woven together. Although the nine acts were technically separate, there was a little bit of back-and-forth between the stories (with one story pausing, another beginning, the first resuming). Plus there was a narrator that ties the whole story together.
I also loved the music, which is fleeting and varies from traditional to contemporary. I loved some of the humor. And I loved the passion that the performers clearly put into perfecting this art form. It’s very creative.
This Lingering Life only had a two week run here. Tonight will be the last performance at Z space. There will be a special discussion between Chiori and Jubilith after tonight’s performance.