“The Doll Sisters,” the genteel and seductive play-with-marionettes
- Anita Gates, NY Times
Part of La MaMa Puppet Festival Part II More info
Japanese Press Release, click here
The production is being mounted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Praemium Imperiale (Takamatsu no Miya Memorial World Cultural Award), a prize for artists that has been awarded since 1989 at the suggestion of the Emperor of Japan. The honor is intended to be a "Nobel Prize in art" and an expansion on the Nobel Prize in Literature to other fields of fine art. The artists awarded are distinguished for their achievements, for the international influence of their art, and for having enriched the world community. The Japan Art Association assigns the prize annually for an artist's life work in each of five categories: painting, sculpture, architecture, music and film/theatre. The prize in film/theater was awarded in 2007 to La MaMa's Ellen Stewart.
"The Doll Sisters" began in 1976 as a collaboration between Taeko Tomioka, a noted poet, and Setsu Asakura, who was already a leading stage designer. Their play premiered at Tokyo's Theatre Jean-Jean and won high critical praise. It used both puppets and actors, combining ancient styles with modern ones. Traditional conventions of the play were drawn from the bunraku and even earlier forms of doll-drama.
The play adopts the characters of the first act of "Modoribashi" by Kawatake Mokuami, a classical Kabuki drama that was, itself, based on a 1,000 year old myth. In it, a samurai offers to escort a beautiful woman across the Modori bridge of Kyoto, only to discover she is a dangerous demon. He pursues her into the air, fights with her, and ultimately cuts off her arm. In other variations of the myth, this leads to a variety of revenge stories. In the Kabuki play, the female demon's transformation into a terrible devil--using face, voice and posture--offers a rare opportunity for an actor specializing in the weird. "The Doll Sisters" updates the myth using two actors, two puppeteers with doll puppets, and a man cloaked in black who would traditionally be an onstage facilitator, but becomes an actual character in this play.
Japanese theater is replete with such "classic" themes as women seduced and abandoned, or women steadfast and faithful. Tomioka took women's themes a step further, exploring the layers of meaning which exist between humans and puppets, a theme seen first in her script for Shinoda's well-known film "Double Suicide." In doing so, she incorporated several qualities of classical Japanese dramaturgy:
The first is "jonen," often translated as "sentiment," but containing more complex nuances. It refers to the fervent fidelity shown, usually by women, in the classic drama. The second quality is "on-nen." Again, no exact translation is possible, but it refers to the pain and horror, hatred and loathing, which occur within a person who is deserted, abandoned, and ruined.
In "The Doll Sisters," these two qualities are embodied within the heroines of the play--two sisters paralleled by a doll character, who are revealed finally to be the two natures of the single woman. The younger, more passionate sister is obsessed with finding a man to love her; her older, more reserved sister is obsessed with the man who abandoned her. On the modern psychological level, the play explores opposing qualities, both innate and acquired, of being female. It has strongly feminist tones.
In 1978, the play opened at the Dallas Theater and then toured to twelve US universities, culminating in five performances at La MaMa. The New York run was too brief to leave behind many reviews, but long enough to etch a significant place in the memory of La MaMa. The artists of the play have maintained a close friendship with the theater, and puppet master Jun Tanaka participated in La MaMa's International Symposium for Directors in Umbria, Italy in 2005.
This year's production of "The Doll Sisters," like its predecessor, will be performed entirely in the original Japanese.
Setsu Asakura (director; set and costumes) is generally regarded as Japan's leading theatrical designer. She is the eldest daughter of noted sculptor Fumio Asakura and received numerous prizes as a painter in the 1950s. In the 1960s, she was drawn to theater design as a larger canvas for her imagination. Already prominent by the 70's, she studied scenic design in NYC on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship and returned to Japan for a prolific career. She has designed numerous plays, operas, films, and other theatrical performances in Japan and around the world. She is probably also the most prolific designer of American and European dramas when they are produced in that country. Among her prizes are the prestigious Yomiuri Award for Excellence in Design and three Japanese Academy Awards for Best Designer (1980, 1982 and 1988). She is chair of OISTAT (Organization of International Stage Arts Technology) and a board member of Japanese Association of Stage and TV Artists. She lectures and teaches actively and works repeatedly with the noted Kabuki actor/director Ennosuke Ichikawa. Many of their Kabuki and opera productions have toured to Europe and the US. She was selected as a "person who has performed distinguished services in the field of culture in Japan" by the Japanese government in 2006.
Playwright Taeko Tomioka is a Japanese poet, novelist and fiction writer. She was well-established as a poet (for works including "Returning the Gift," 1957) when she turned to fiction writing in 1971, and is now best known to general readers for her fiction (including "Family in Hell," 1974), which is unmistakably autobiographical, and later works like "The Undulating Land," 1983, in which potentials of women's sexuality are candidly explored.
Renowned puppet master Jun Tanaka will reprise his role in the 1978 production. He has been designated a Living Treasure of the City of Tokyo. At the time of the first La MaMa production, he was Mogosaburo Yuki, the eleventh head of Yuki Ningyo Za (Yuki Puppet Theater) of Tokyo, a position now occupied by his brother. That marionette troupe was founded during the Edo period and was one of the first troupes to move from Buddhist parables to playing shamisen and singing at the same time for Joruri and Kabuki. Out of the five historical troupes founded three and a half centuries ago, it is the only one that continues in its original role as a theater. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government designated the Youkiza as an important cultural asset in 1956. Today it continues to perform Buddhist parables, but also performs new works, picture works and tours internationally. Its repertory includes an award-winning marionette performance of "Macbeth." Tanaka led the company from 1972 to 1990, when he left it to pursue other artistic interests. For more info on the troupe, see: http://www.youkiza.jp/english/index.html. There is a peek at a contemporary Jun Tanaka performance on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LuMqKVmuo0&feature=related.
The production returns with most of its original company. Director is Setsu Asakura, who also designed the set and costumes. Production Managers are Jun Matsuno and Misa Hayashi. Lighting design is by Ikuo Murobushi. Sound is by Shoji Harashima. Choreography is by Kikushiro Onoe. The Older Sister is played by Kazuko Yoshiyuki. The Young Sister is played by Mieko Yuki. The Man Marionetteer is Jun Tanaka and the Woman Marionetteer is Kikukata Onoe. The "Black Man" is played by Kikushiro Onoe. New York production coordinator is Machiko Izawa/OneStage Inc.
Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Older Sister) returns in the role she created 30 years ago. She is a well known actress in Japan, appearing in numerous stage productions, TV and film. Mieko Yuki (Younger Sister) studied acting at Stella Adler Acting School in New York and has appeared in stage, TV and film productions in Japan. She is also an accomplished sculptor who creates papier mache dolls and pottery. She will have an exhibition of her works at Ippodo gallery in Chelsea (NYC) opening October 3.
This production of "The Doll Sisters" (Ningyo Shimai) is presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and Atelier Askura, supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan in the fiscal 2008, with additional support provided by Asian Cultural Council.
Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Mieko Yuki, Jun Tanaka, Kikukata Onoe and Kikushiro Onoe
|Set & Costume
|| Setsu Asakura
|| Keiko Watanabe
|Production Stage Manager
Supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs Government of Japan in the fiscal 2008
New York Staff:
Production Coordinator Machiko Izawa
Prodution Assistant Masatoshi Nakanishi
Returning to NY to Retell an Ancient Tale
by Anita Gates
New York Times
Let’s call them Eager Sister and Skeptical Sister. One wants to run away with her new romance. The other thinks she’s insane, because men are no good and will only hurt her.
At least I believe that’s what’s going on with the battling lead characters in “The Doll Sisters,” the genteel and seductive play-with-marionettes now at the Annex Theater at La MaMa E.T.C.
I can’t vouch for the subtlety of the dialogue, because it is all in the original Japanese, and there are no sub- or surtitles, only a brief plot synopsis in the program. But I can vouch for the fervent emotional truth in the performances of Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Mieko Yuki as the sisters.
Watching them can sometimes feel like viewing a 1950s or ’60s Ingmar Bergman film; you may half-expect the sisters to strike a pose in facing, merging profiles, “Persona” style. The characters do, in fact, merge; the author, Taeko Tomioka, ultimately reveals that the two represent opposing aspects of the same woman.
For “The Doll Sisters,” this is a return engagement in more ways than one. It was first performed at La MaMa in 1978, and both the director (Setsu Asakura) and two cast members have returned with it. Those actors are Ms. Yoshiyuki as the older, angrier sister, and the puppet master Jun Tanaka, who handles and does the voice for the Marionette Man.
The battle of the sexes doesn’t go well for women in this work, based on a Kabuki classic, “Modoribashi.” You can tell because Mr. Tanaka’s marionette has a gruff voice and points a lot. The Marionette Woman, handled by Kikukata Onoe, bows and kneels a lot.
At one point, Ms. Yuki’s gestures mimic those of Ms. Onoe’s marionette (or possibly the other way around), demonstrating just how much meaning can be expressed with a kimono sleeve. Ms. Onoe also plays the mysterious Man in Black.
“The Doll Sisters” is part of the La MaMa Puppet Series Festival Part 2, but the marionettes are relatively minor players. They have nothing to do, for instance, with the visually spectacular finish, which involves the unfurling of a grand red backdrop that speaks of the shedding of blood with as much force as a Quentin Tarantino movie. And a lot less mess.
La MaMa Puppet series Festival Part II
Ko'olau is part of The La MaMa Puppet Series Festival Part II, which also features multicultural works from Hawaii, Colombia and Japan. All the productions are brimming with international art forms. The series contains "Ko'olau" by Tom Lee, a puppet epic based on a now-legendary story of Hawai'i in the 1890s (September 18 to October 5), "Room To Panic" a new work created by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber of LOCO7 (www.loco7.org) and the final episode in a three-part theatrical work depicting, in movement and visual theater, the experience of immigration to America, with music by Elizabeth Swados (October 4 thru 19) and "The Doll Sisters".
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