If people went to last night’s premiere of Geisha from director Ong Keng Sen looking for a stage version of Rob Marshall’s recent film Memoirs of a Geisha, or Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel of the same name, upon which the film was based, they were in for something of a surprise. (For Jennifer Corley’s full City Paper review, click here.) What the packed audience rather got was a visually sumptuous, Brechtian non-narrative exploration of the geisha – that misunderstood class of professional women in Japan trained from girlhood in conversation, dancing, and singing in order to entertain men. They weren’t exactly prostitutes – geishas were trained as entertainers and social companions first – but very often they weren’t exactly not prostitutes, either.

A bare stage of white flooring and a white backdrop, with the wing areas fully exposed, were all that existed of a set. In the upper stage left corner, Kineya Katsumatsu kneeled and played the shamisen with an understated virtuosity, while actress Karen Kandel and Japanese dancer Gojo Masanosuke, as the Geisha, performed short scenes connected only bare the bare dramatic thread of the role of geisha in Japanses culture throughout history. Using meticulous, deliberate movements, an array of simple but evocative costumes and wigs, and an infinitely malleable voice, Kandel inhabited dozens of characters – many of them geishas, some not – who performed opposite, and often with, Masanosuke, who never said a word as the Geisha. When the scene called for it, Katsumatsu’s shamisen music yielded to ambient electronic soundscapes from DJ Toru Yamanaka, which made for a slightly surreal experience.

After 75 or 80 minutes of this, with no single narrative to latch onto and thus no way to tell when an end might be approaching, the American audience at Emmett Robinson Theatre began to grow a little weary. There were some stony faces around me – particularly from older patrons during moments of high-volume electronic dance music – and I heard a groan or two when a new scene began. But 90 minutes after they started, Kandel and Masanosuke delivered a marvelous, touching final scene (reminiscent of a scene from David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly) in which Masanosuke appeared without any of the makeup or many-layered kimonos he’d worn throughout the show, and we were left wondering if the geisha was a dream, theatre, or an illusion. Which was probably just the way they wanted it.

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