First let me say that I’m all for the trying. The Noh Pressure Cooker Festival, which ran over three weekends in October, is meant to offer a range of new works by the NOHSpace’s resident troupe Theatre of Yugen. Now in its 28th season, this active group of performers studies a variety of techniques centered around the venerable 600-year old Japanese theater form, but their focus in the Pressure Cooker Festival is new work and contemporary stories. Anyone wandering in looking for a classical Noh version of The Tale of Genji is in the wrong place.
If the air of experimentation is admirable, however, the execution still leaves something of a slapdash feeling. Enthusiasm for their work obviously informed the three pieces on display on the second weekend, but the overall impression was that these were works-in-progress that, for the most part, were just not thoroughly thought out.
Libby Zilber’s Chu-no-mai Remix, which opened the show, strove to demonstrate the underpinnings of the training dance of the title, which according to the program notes is one traditionally used in Noh theater pieces. Divided into two parts — the first a film and the second a demonstration of chu-no-mai with Yugen’s artistic director Zilber on Noh flute accompanying co-artistic director Jubilith Moore’s dance-demonstration — the whole affair came off as part didactic and part etude.
The film was recorded at the troupe’s retreat at Circle W Ranch as well as the Burning Man decompression party. The result is a dizzying (and I mean that literally, given the amateurish Blair Witch Project camerawork) and — to the uninitiated — incomprehensible blur of clips. People in the woods with sticks, with cleavers, moving solo or in groups, splashing in the lake. It somehow reminded me of those wintry afternoons when my geeky friends and I used to cut school to play out our own episodes of Star Wars in Central Park. They were elaborate productions, sometimes requiring props and borrowed blankets for cloaks — but it was all very much for ourselves, not for anyone else to see.
More traditionally Noh and worthy of further development was Internment of the Heart. Undoubtedly the most fully realized of the three, it was the only one to use an integrated text, based on haiku poetry composed by Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II.
“Yugen” is a word that implies the deep, dark richness of the spirit world, which often emerges in Noh works. In Internment it is personified by Moore as the wind, but the demons and ghosts lie within the characters. With a looming white circle that served as both a moon and a screen for slides of real internment papers, three characters (Julie Brown, Yugen co-artistic director Lluis Valls and Stephen Siegel) trudge through the indignities of the concentration camp tagged and numbered like so much department store merchandise.
The piece has room to improve of course — it’s far too long for one thing. And when the characters step out of the poetry and into explicit literality, we see the seams of the play’s construction and its effort to espouse a cause, rather than simply tell the story. Nevertheless, Internment elegantly adapted a poetical Noh sensibility to a 20th century story.
The final piece, Clowns on the Moon, seemed like an elaborate afterthought. The program notes mention that none of the routines in this piece are original — indeed they are not. Accompanied by Max Baloian and Jason Ditzian — on, variously, clarinet, sax, guitar and drum — the six players (Brady Gill, Christina Lewis, James Pelican, Jules Pelican, David Rosenfeld and Valls) reenact the famous “eating a leather workboot” scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film Gold RushL, and other vaguely familiar routines that resonate from childhood: a clown covered in telephones, or battling with a lamp, another one tentatively emerging from a picture frame.
Still the whole shebang looks to me like an embarrassing violation of the unwritten clown code, the centuries old — and very serious — tradition in clowning which dictates that you don’t steal someone else’s bits. But most unforgivably of all, they are not funny — and you can’t blame the material.
Noh Pressure Cooker ran October 1-19, 2006 at Noh Space.