Before you ask: No, this is not a stage adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel Memoirs of a Geisha, although the timing of Spoleto’s premiere of Geisha couldn’t have been more savvy.
Director Ong Keng Sen (who also directed The Silver River in 2000’s festival), known for his cross-cultural experimentation, combines traditional kabuki theatre with modern storytelling techniques for Geisha, a brand new play produced by Theatreworks Singapore, where Ong serves as artistic director. The piece was commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival to premiere at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA. It will go on to the Singapore Arts Festival and the Lincoln Center Festival later this summer.
Ong conceived of this play as a way to explore the mythical story of the geisha, the legendary female courtesans of Japan, who still exist today and provide much fodder for imaginations the world over. The staging has the traditional elements of kabuki — the shamisen, a cross-dressing lead actor, colorful costumes — and exciting modern flourishes — an African-American narrator, a DJ to provide an aural soundscape — that will likely prove to be a cross-cultural exploration of the ancient culture of Japan.
The very recognizable kabuki is a highly stylized and sophisticated form of theatre that was created by a Japanese woman in 1603. Ironic, considering that women were banned from the kabuki stage in 1629, after the theatrical experiences began getting a bit raucous, involving a “lively” atmosphere and prostitution. It didn’t help that the stories dealt with modern tales and didn’t simply glorify the government. With the ban on females, young men took over the stage and then, finally, due to increasing debauchery, it became the exclusive domain of older men. (In recent years women have begun eking their way back into kabuki.) Kabuki roles are clearly delineated with specific types — the young maiden, the wicked female, the handsome lover, the evil samurai, the geisha, etc. — performed by actors who specialize in those types; female roles performed by males are called onnagata.
The geisha regularly appeared as the tragic heroines of kabuki plays. While records of Japanese courtesans date back to the 12th century, the geisha as an official category came into being in the late 1600s, as teenage dancers were sold into prostitution by their families, usually noble samurais who had fallen into decline as their services were no longer needed. The girls were talented and cultured, and their placement into the pleasure quarters, along with the rise in wealth of the merchant class, led to more cultural ties. Many artworks from the Edo Period have geisha, kabuki performers, and sumo wrestlers as their subjects. The pleasure quarters became a place for the merging of culture, fun, and entertainment (and, of course, some action).
Geisha delves into the stories of these classy courtesans. Actress Karen Kandel narrates and interweaves many stories — of geisha, of the maikos (apprentice geishas), the clients, their wives, and others involved in the culture — while kabuki dancer Gojo Masanosuke takes the onnagata role and performs classical Japanese dance. As choreographer of the Gojo School of Japanese Dance and lecturer at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, he has developed a mastery of several classic roles — unusual in the kabuki theatre. Kandel has collaborated on several projects with Ong and has appeared at Spoleto Festival USA before, most recently in Ong’s production of Silver River. Kandel is African-American — also not exactly common in the kabuki theatre.
The play will also feature Kineya Katsumatsu playing the traditional shamisen — a three-stringed instrument similar to a banjo. The shamisen is so tied to kabuki that the name has come to refer to kabuki music itself, rather than just the instrument.
Kabuki theatre usually has a lavish, extravagant, and vividly colorful set, but the stage in Ong’s production will be sparse, with the exception of the sumptuous costumes designed by Mitsushi Yanaihara. DJ Toru Yamanaka, an accomplished multimedia producer, adds a soundscape for yet another layer of modern sensibility.
The ultimate result should be, literally, fantastic. Ong Keng Sen says, “It is my hope to bring together the fantasy of the geisha as well as the heartfelt voices of this world. In all my work, I bring opposites together in that they will nurture each other.”
Ong’s previous success mixing the ancient and the contemporary has been extraordinary. His legend — or perhaps the legend of the geisha — has preceded him; very few tickets can still be had to the world premiere of Geisha.
GEISHA • Spoleto Festival USA • $35 • May 26, 27, 29, 30 at 8 p.m.; May 28 at 2 p.m. • 1 hour 15 min • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Albert Simons Center, 54 St. Phillip St. • 579-3100