By Matt Willemain
Performing comedy is hard enough when you speak the same language as your audience. The Yamamoto family’s success with their Wang Center performance of kyogen plays—stories taken nearly seven thousand miles and seven hundred years from their origin—was an impressive feat. All the more so when you consider how the audience was asked to put together what was happening by combining their perceptions of the live performance on stage with readings of subtitle-like translated text on stage-side monitors.
Unlike the naturalistic style of US theatre, kyogen is highly stylized and doesn’t attempt to create the illusion of reality—much like other Japanese theatrical traditions better known here such as kabuki or noh. The performers hold their faces frozen in perfectly still masks, use a formalized, sing-song cadence to compensate for the loss of facial expression and occasionally address the audience directly in almost vaudevillian manner. If the two plays chosen for the March 22 performance were indicative of typical content, maybe the best Western example to which kyogen could be compared is the work of English comedian and television star Ricky Gervais. The creator of The Office and Extras may be out of touch with feudal Japan, but there is a commonality in the kind of comedy he helped popularized, which can show silliness in one moment, and grimly real stupidity and cruelty in the next.
The first play, “Stop in Your Tracks”, begins with a buffoonish samurai who wants to look good for a party and orders his servant to borrow tea from the samurai’s uncle. The samurai is inadequate, however. His servant must, embarrassingly, expand the request for tea into begging for the sword and horse his master should already have. On the way to the party, circumstances conspire to create a role reversal, and the put-upon servant delivers back the abuse he has received from his master.
In the second play, “Moon-viewing Blind Man”, the title character meets a new friend while out for a walk one night. After apparently bonding with the man, his friend decides it would be funny to return and pretend to be someone else. The old blind man is confronted by a seemingly belligerent stranger, who picks a fight with him and throws him to the ground, disorienting him and separating him from his walking stick.
The second play hinted at a complexity in the canon of 200 or so kyogen stories. The event’s program used the word cynical to get at this face of kyogen; in a question and answer period following the show, actor Yamamoto Noritoshi called it, through a translator, philosophical. While the exact nature of this ineffable complication may be hard to pin down, the resulting bitter undertones made for a memorable evening of comedy.
Three of the traveling company’s four players come from the same aristocratic family with a long and celebrated kyogen tradition. They come to Stony Brook with a dizzying array of international cultural bona fides to go with their generations of family practice. Yamamoto Noritoshi was joined onstage by his son Yamamoto Norihide and nephew Yamamoto Yasutaro. Also joining the three was Wakamatsu Takashi, a student of Yamamoto Noritoshi’s brother. Kyogen theatre was developed to provide lighter interludes during a day of multiple noh dramas.
The Wang Center’s next cultural performance will be the April 15 show “Wounds Unkissed” by YaliniDream, featuring poetry, theatre, dance, hip hop, house and aerial circus. More information is available at www.stonybrook.edu/wang.