Deconstruction is the key word when it comes to director Ong Keng Sen’s beautifully staged Geisha, which opened last night at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, seemingly to mixed reaction. (The audible yawning had grown considerably by play’s end. A good portion of the crowd gave a standing ovation at the curtain call, while some others made a beeline for the exit).
Many probably felt a little unease with what they saw, just because they didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Geisha seems to go from a tad indulgent to immensely interesting (for the most of the play) to an unexciting final lulled state (perhaps like the life of a geisha?) — maybe it would help if there were more of a structure for the audience to follow rather than the dreamlike quality the production floats along, or maybe some of the scenes just need more fleshing out. But in spite of the few less than fabulous moments, the direction, performances, and design elements lend heart, ceremony, and examination to one of the biggest icons of Japanese culture that exists.
This is the first public production of Geisha, and Ong says this will be a good time to gauge what works and what doesn’t for the audience.
The production is rooted in Brechtian alienation techniques, says Ong, which is apparent in the simple set, exposed stage mechanics, and lights rigged up visibly at the stage wings. In the opening scene, Karen Kandel delivers a monologue about lovers’ suicide as she gathers a stretchy white fabric around herself. Visually, it’s a stunning opening, but textually it’s not the most powerful of the vignettes.
The vignettes, written by Robin Loon, came out of years of company research, interviews, and rehearsal. Each company member, Ong says, took their own journey into the process. (For example, Kandel took some Geisha training, and Ong watched films and delved into kabuki literature.) These vignettes provide the audience with portraits of people affected by the lifestyle of the geisha — whether it’s geisha themselves, the wife of a geisha patron, the mamasan, the child of a geisha, an outside observer – and Kandel brings them to life beautifully. Her sinewy body moves unabashedly from one character to the next, confidently taking on abnormal movements and representations, which, instead of faithfully depicting the character type, instead depict an abstraction, an artist’s interpretation of the character. For instance, the gentle tremor of a 90-year-old geisha instead becomes arms waving like a squid’s tentacles.
The problem, if one can really call it that, with the vignettes is that they leave us just as we are connecting with the character, if we’ve even had a chance to. Perhaps that’s the point — maybe we are only allowed a hint, a glimpse into the reality, like peeking in through a cracked door. But it feels more like the characters and situations are fully formed in the company’s collective mind, yet not getting completely translated to the audience before they move onto the next vignette. We’re taken out of the stories, continuing onto the next, but there doesn’t appear to be an ultimate destination.
Gojo Masanosuke performs an initial dance which Kandel then explains to us as the representation of an oiran, a bonded prostitute who was often confused with the independent geisha. Gojo Masanosuke’s dances are beautiful and entrancing; unfortunately the movement is so precise that without trying to read and keep up with the program in the dark (or without Kandel’s occasional explanations), one can’t know the meaning of the dances.
The sound design, a “soundscape” by composer and DJ Toru Yamanaka, is absolutely crucial to the mood and intent of Geisha. If he hasn’t been featured on a Bjork album yet, he should be. His dreamy, machine-like, at times somnolent and others peppy music floats like discordant waves, a subtle through-line that leads us just as much as Kandel’s narration. Shamisen player Kineya Katsumatsu’s haunting instrumental and vocal accompaniment conversely ground the production in tradition elegantly.
Costume design by Mitsushi Yanaihara also contributes greatly to the deconstruction theme. During one of Kandel’s segments, she wears a black robe with layers of fabric peeking out. As she changes characters, she pulls out a piece of fabric and lowers it over her head. In other segments, she dons what Ong calls the modern accessory of Japan — wigs. In one scene, as she portrays the wife of a geisha patron, she wears Hello Kitty sandals as she convinces herself, “We are not competing. I am a woman, a wife. She is a living doll.”
Light design by Scott Zielinski features a mood ring-like quality. The floor and backdrop glow green, red, white, pink — shades reflecting the tone of the scene. During one particularly mesmerizing sequence, Kandel and Gojo Masanosuke dance as dueling geishas as footlights cast their shadows onto the backdrop, enhancing their struggle. Each keeps their particular style, and when Gojo Masanosuke wins, the look he shoots Kandel slices through the air sharply and exquisitely.
The technical elements help place Geisha in an entirely new context. The disharmony supports the deconstruction theme along with the confusion, mystery, and ignorance that surround the topic of geisha. Geisha are rare in modern Japan, and they are largely ignored by younger generations as even having value. They are seen as an ancient carryover, a dinosaur of sorts.
“Imagine if you saw someone walking down the street here in 18th century costume,” Ong says. That’s how seeing a geisha in Japan is these days. But seeing as how practicing geishas do still exist, Ong and co. felt that juxtaposing her in a modern context would be an interesting way to approach the subject. Deconstructing the geisha: what makes her up; the wig, the kimono, the people who patronize her. The geisha who leave the business and are ostracized. There is a bizarre clash of old and new with Geisha, both the woman and the play.
“A geisha contains her art within her body,” Kandel says. “That’s the power of art — the salvation of a soul … in the end, art is everything.” The deconstruction shows the parallel between geisha and theatre. Kandel even cites to the audience the inspiration for a scene — a 1930s film — after the scene has finished. Asides like this feed the deconstruction, the peeling away of the geisha layers, like the kimono peeling off. The play starts and ends with references to the theatre and illusions: “I hold up a mirror so that you can see better,” she tells us. Gojo Masanosuke comes out, stripped of his geisha trappings, and in regular modern male form.
“Do you like what you see?” Kandel asks us. If you’re expecting a whole play of demure man-pleasing geishas, then no, you probably won’t. But if you’re up for getting a more revealing, even if not extremely thorough, look at the world of the mythology, then you will be pleased.
Ong Keng Sen and Karen Kandel will participate in a “Conversations With” event with Martha Teichner on Sunday May 28th from 3:30- 4:30 pm at the Emmett Robinson Theatre.
GEISHA • Spoleto Festival USA • $35 • May May 27, 29, 30 at 8 p.m., May 28 at 2 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Albert Simons Center • 579-3100