When a once-thriving, centuries-old art form all but vanishes from the vocabulary of beautiful things, a sadness rises. Especially when, before now, the isolated art form has remained in the mountains of Tokushima on one tiny island off the coast of Japan, rare, untapped and virtually unknown to the outside world.
But all faithful artists of every golden age are burdened with mortality, so their timeless works of visionary wonder eventually come to an end. With this passing down of generations that there is often less and less to pass along, until the only masters who remain must place an entire forest category of “puppet-trees” in the hands of younger and hopefully willing performers, under whose shade they will never sit.
So who will tend to Dogugaeshi Theatre when the masters are gone, continuing the life breath of an Eastern tradition while keeping the flame of it’s memory alive? Thankfully, one American puppeteer who reveres Japanese culture also believes in the staying power of Dogugaeshi Theatre. Basil Twist is he.
Twist has picked up this torch of ancient Japanese staging technique and brought it to Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. in the simply titled Dogugaeshi, as the final installment of the city’s Basil Twist Festival.
Many of us have seen Japanese Bunraku (17th century Japan)-influenced puppetry incorporated into a variety of modern plays – you may remember The Long Christmas Ride Home at Studio Theatre, Disfarmer at UMaryland or more recently, Basil Twist’s Petrushka at the Lansburgh Theatre. Dogugaeshi is the lesser known style of the two generas, but it is no less disciplined or effective. Dogugaeshi Theatre, from the 16th-century, is composed of a series of fusuma-e, beautifully and colorfully-painted screens on tracks that slide open to reveal image after image in a rapid succession of sights and scenes. They usually part down the mid line, and regularly hang down or push up from tops and bottoms. Dogugaeshi Theatre usually starts with the largest screens first and works it’s way in coordination with the lights and sound toward the smaller ones, composing multi-layered creatures, emotions and anything else along the way, until the smallest screens are visible. This marks the “end” of a scene. There might be other puppets peppered within to provide either an anchor of comedy or tragedy throughout the fast-paced scene alterations, but, at it’s core, the show is all about the screens.
“Dogugaeshi is one of my most deeply felt statements on the theatrical experience, the power of puppetry and my reverence for the culture of Japan,” Twist stated on kickstarter.com. “I have never had a doubt that this show would find its way into this retrospective of my work and this auspicious celebration of the relationship between the United states and Japan…Especially given the show’s own very rich creative relationship between these two cultures.“
Dogugaeshi is one of two shows in this 2012 festival in which Twist himself performs, often “conducting” from below the playboard, in a yoga-like “boat-pose” with all four limbs in the air. Twist performs alongside three equally dexterous puppeteers who keep out of sight and can only be seen through unintentional hand glimpses as they swiftly change one slide then the next, always in tandem with the sound, lights and music. The puppeteers are both vivid and stark in their manipulation, allowing the crispness of so many necessary, simultaneous and consecutive moves to appear easy.
Master shamisen musician Yumiko Tanaka provides the live music element on top of the powerful sound design. She is brilliant as she layers her own live-shamisen on top of pre-recorded tracks of herself, creating a one-person “Japanese orchestra” to accompany Twist’s show. She scrapes and bows her strings to initiate, imitate and intimate the show’s intended emotion and/or characters, while the listening audience, appended to their seats, sits transfixed by the narrative of history rising from the underworld.
The audience peers discerningly into the limelight, oohing and aweing as one, while candle light flickers under layers of stage lights and front-of-house projections. The shifts happen so vibrantly there is no need to look away for one second. One of my favorite parts was the tree which transmuted into all four seasons.
How many bonafide Dogugaeshi shows are still in performance? Twist claims that there is “probably one on the island of Ajawi, but it is only performed once a year, and the puppeteers are well over 50.” One particular Japanese Dogugaeshi show has a “legendary 88 screens.” Twist’s version has at least that many and when asked about the actual number, he humbly shrugs with a smile, “I have no idea, I lost count.” There are certainly more than 100 screens in this special Dogugaeshi show at Studio Theatre, hand painted by Twist and a collaborator.
Well done to designers, Peter Flaherty (video projection), Andrew Hill (Lighting) and Greg Duffin (Sound Design) as well as Twists additional puppeteers: Jessica Scott, Jonothon Lyons and Kate Brehm.
Studio Theatre is a very personal space, housing less than 80 seats for Dogugaeshi, affording an up-close view. The walls have black curtains hanging from the sides to mask the backstage areas and the arrangement of chairs in the house seems to mirror a similar quality of the show that is being executed in front of them. After, Twist likes to peel back the masking curtains and invite the audience to have a peek behind the magic to see the Control Rig up close. Surprisingly, there is only a compact set of simple wooden towers with many built-in slide mechanisms, each fully loaded with the intricately hand-painted slides, standing at the ready for the next scenic transition. I am amazed that the smallest of Twist’s screens appears from the audience to be moderately-sized, but up close it is tiny.
This is very likely your one chance of a lifetime to see this artful, ancient puppetry art. Experience it soon at Studio Theatre before the final, tiniest screen goes dark.
Dogugaeshi runs thru April 22, 2012 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
by Basil Twist
Presented at Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Eric Brooks
Running time: 1 hour
Eric Brooks is a local puppeteer, musician and collaborator in the D.C. area. He is the producer of a puppetry showcase called The Playhouse Puppetry Slam! in Glen Echo, MD. The next one will be on April 28th. For more information, go to www.puppetryslam.com.