The Orient, Expressed

Send in the clowns: Masaki Kosuzu (left) and Shuji Honda as emissaries to Commodore Perry in Pacific Overtures.Photo: Tsukasa Aoki

What a piece of legerdemain, this latest version of Pacific Overtures, from Amon Miyamoto’s New National Theatre in Tokyo. Japan perceived through the eyes and ears of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim, but their musical given a new twist through Miyamoto’s vision. In reciprocation of Commodore Perry’s cannons intimidating Japan, the shamisen and shakuhachi infiltrating the Western musical canon – and this time in Japanese. How teasingly disorienting for us Occidental tourists is this fun house of Eastern and Western distorting mirrors reflecting each other. But as we laugh at the resulting caricatures, we learn to see similarities under our differences.

Miyamoto has gone from the lavish Kabuki style of Harold Prince’s Broadway original to the austerity of Noh drama. Something is gained thereby; much more is lost. Boris Aronson’s scenery and Florence Klotz’s costumes, though voluptuously opulent, also found a storytelling structure in their inventiveness. Their permutations supplemented the chastity of the music and lyrics, the discretion of the characterization. This decidedly more economical Japanese production, with understated screens and a stark unit set, focused attention on the book and score. But the writing is bare-bones stuff, the lyrics lose impact as mere surtitles, as does an orchestra reduced from 24 to 7, undernourished for Western ears.

In any case, this is not an intimate story, but a large historical canvas – a comic epic – that needs the Aronson-Klotz grandeur, Prince ingenuity and overview, and Broadway technology. Translated not only into Japanese but also from a smaller Tokyo house into the vastness of Avery Fisher Hall, it suffers a double displacement: There are clear misunderstandings, as when a Russian admiral repeatedly sings “Do not touch this coat” but wears, instead of the stipulated fur, plain cloth.

Still, there were some nice touches: the foreigners – i.e., Americans – as hairy devils, Perry as a seven-foot scarecrow, a huge American flag unfurled across the Avery Fisher ceiling. Also the inclusion, contrary to tradition, of women in the cast. But when a fishing boat is merely a plywood oval worn around the waist, the menacingly dragonlike gunship a barely noticed shadow, and so on, whimsy proves too flimsy to be epic. Moreover, I agree with Joanne Gordon, in Art Isn’t Easy, that Pacific Overtures is Sondheim’s “most elaborate puzzle, but not his most compelling theatrical composition.”

Logic of the Birds, subtitled Phase II, is a multimedia offering based on a twelfth-century Persian poem by Attar in which 30 birds go on a perilous journey in search of an avian king. The king is turned into a goddess – making Attar an 800-year-old protofeminist. Three redundant screens and supposedly 30 performers make a cryptic attempt at telling a story with opaque images, soundtrack music that is ululation to my ears, and the old trick (derived from the far superior Czech invention, Laterna Magica) of having screen figures step onstage and back. Out front for the most time is a single singer-dancer, Sussan Deyhim, who sashays, gesticulates, and gyrates (dance), and intones a monotonous chant (song). She is one of five co-creators, along with Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari, and Ghasem Ebrahimian, who are Iranian-born, and Richard Horowitz, who, presumably, is not.

The reason this amateurish piece of self-indulgence, which inflates 50 minutes into a quasi-eternity, was picked by the Lincoln Center Festival may have been as political as benighted: It may show Iran that we value its culture. As farcical as it is Farsi, it also demonstrates that we can’t tell exotica from excreta.

Pacific Overtures
The Stephen Sondheim–John Weidman musical, presented by the New National Theater of Tokyo.
Logic of the Birds
Multimedia collaboration originated by RoseLee Goldberg.
Both shows presented by Lincoln Center Festival (closed).

The Orient, Expressed