Star-crossed Kabuki love

Have you ever sat through a performance of Romeo and Juliet for the umpteenth time, watching the Montagues and Capulets kill each other off, waiting for the kids to drink the poison and use the dagger so you can finally get out of the theater? And have you ever wondered what’s missing from the performance that would sate your theatrical hunger?

If the answer to your question is medieval Japan, puppets and quasi-Kabuki, then the “The Love Suicides At Sonezaki” is your cup o’ tea. The Yale Cabaret’s production of this domestic tragedy, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon in 1703, combines both traditional Japanese and modern Western elements to tell a moving and emblematic tale that comes off as the Eastern version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The play, alleged to be based on a real “love suicide,” tells the archetypal story of ill-fated lovers and their love that cannot be. It follows the romance of Tokubei and Ohatsu, young lovers in feudal Japan. Director Dustin Eshenroder DRA ’07 divides the roles of Tokubei and Ohatsu into two parts — the body and the voice — in an homage to Kabuki theater. Tokubei, composed of Gilbert Owuor DRA ’07 as his body and Malcolm K. Darrell DRA ’07 as his voice, is an apprentice to his uncle and Ohatsu, Katherine Martushova GRD ’08 and Caitlin Clouthier DRA ’08 as body and voice respectively, is a prostitute. The tragedy unfolds as Tokubei’s uncle arranges for him to marry another girl, and Tokubei refuses.

Misfortune continues to foment when Tokubei tries to retrieve a loan of money from his friend Kuheiji (Naomi Okuyama DRA ’07) in order to pay back the dowry of his refused fiancée. Kuheiji flat-out denies that he was ever given a loan, and Tokubei is disgraced. Incapable of living with the humiliation, he and Ohatsu decide to commit suicide since the world won’t let them be together (sound familiar?).

The actors fare well in expressing their grief and complement each other befittingly. Owuor’s and Martushova’s slow and ritualistic movements provoke an intense intimacy even though they never come close to touching each other.

Their performances are almost as powerful as that of Okuyama, who steals the stage as the puppet Kuheiji. Although she remains concealed behind a mask, Okuyama’s skill shines whenever she is flaunting Kuheiji’s egotistic and cagey nature. The caricature of Kuheiji is enriched by the voice of narrator Nelson T. Eusebio III DRA ’07, whose whiny, obnoxious speech turns Kuheiji into more of a joke than a real villain. A particularly impressive example of the show’s ceremonial movement is a choreographed fight scene between Kuheiji and Tokubei. Owuor and Okuyama mirror each other precisely to create an exciting brawl between two characters who remain on opposite sides of the stage.

Darrell and Couthier infuse raw emotion into the show, and the amorous dialogues between them convey the dichotomy of tranquility and despair rooted in the tragedy. Eusebio’s commentary helps to move the story along, and only through his guidance can the audience comprehend the meaning behind the actors’ body language. While the show excels in its solemnity and direction, there are moments of tediousness, especially at the end when Tokubei and Ohatsu drone on and on before finally accepting their demise.

The technical aspects of the show succeed in transporting the audience back to 17th-century Japan. Sound designer Amy Altadonna DRA ’07 chooses soft and poignant instrumentals to accompany the lovers’ dialogues, and uses a medley of makeshift instruments to provide appropriate sound effects.

Doubling as set designer, Eshenroder creates a minimalist stage, consisting of a raised wooden floor for domestic scenes and an open space for all other events. This simplicity is inherent throughout the production, with props implied by the characters’ gestures. Costume designer Christina Bullard DRA ’07 devises modest Japanese traditional wear, save for a few dazzling silk cloths that intertwine Tokubei and Ohasu in their suicide dance. Lighting designer Ji-Youn Chang DRA ’08 combines bright, expansive lights with a background of indistinct clouds to suggest different times of day and highlight the sentiments of the characters.

Though not as elaborate as traditional Kabuki theater, the production exudes depth and ingenuity, most notably in its final moment. Backdropped by a shining gold light, the two lovers come towards each other and remove their masks. In this concluding and defining moment, they single-mindedly embrace one another, as the voice of the narrator conveys the play’s symbolization: “In death, they will surely become models of true love.”

The Love Suicides At Sonezaki

The Yale Cabaret

Friday and Saturday

at 8:30 and 11 p.m.

Doors open for

Dinner and Drinks

at 7 and 10 p.m.

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