Euripides's "The Bacchae" is a curiously exotic tragedy to see any time. But to see it stunningly performed in a farm village -- on a mountaintop in north-central Japan on a moonlit August night -- almost surpasses belief.
But then its creator, Tadasai Suzuki, is a surprising artist, full of daring schemes and disturbing notions, a leading figure in the world's "fringe" theater.
Here in tiny Togamura (in the Toyama Prefecture) he has begun to create an international theater festival, a place for innovtive theater artists and companies not only to show their work but to share their training methods. This summer's "Bacchae" was another step in his unfolding plan.
Suzuki's "Bacchae" was another step in his unfolding plan.
Suzuki's "Bacchae" is itself an international show, performed in a heady mixture of English and Japanese. It is a successful blend of Suzuki's own Tokyo-based company, the Waseda Sho-gekijo, and 12 young American actors recently graduated from the actor training program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Suzuki spent six weeks last spring in Milwaukee training the students and developing the first version of his production. Then this summer the Americans came to Togamura and -- joining Suzuki's Japanese company over the course of several weeks -- recreated the show for the festival.
All agree that they have grown significantly as artists because of the experience. And -- though working with translators -- both Japanese and Americans have learned that neither culture is as impenetrable as they had imagined. The nonverbal aspects of theater, the rich expressive possibilities of sound and movement, form a universal bond.
Suzuki is an ambitious and original artist. His theater is sure to be better known, especially in America, in the years ahead. His European reputation is already considerable. The Waseda Sho-gekijo has played there frequently, this year again in Copenhagen. New York may see "The Bacchae." And future summer festival plans include the import of small experimental theater companies from Europe and America.
Suzuki's "Bacchae," a free adaptation of the original, springs directly from the director's unique training methods. These have evolved over the past 20 years, starting just after Suzuki's undergraduate days at Waseda University. On the surface he is an unaffected, ebullient man, but sure of his authority, and steely in his concentration on his goals.
For all his gentleness, in rehearsal he can be tyrannical. His work is sensitive but tough, a ruggedly physical series of exercises that resemble military drills. Eyes fixed, faces immobile, the company stamps and pounds the stage floor with its feet in perfect unison, executing complex and exhausting patterns with intense concentration. The classical theater of Japan is evident in slow motion mixed with arrested moments of breathtaking stillness, like living sculpture. such training produces strong actors, unified in body and voice, and an acting style that is highly energized and objective.
The leading actress of the Waseda Sho-gekijo -- indeed one of the leading actresses in the world -- is Shiraishi Kaiko. For the theater lover, she alone is worth a trip to Japan. Because of the language barrier, it is unlikely she will ever become an international star. Shiraishi is a torrent of power: small, commanding, ruthless, recalling Martha Graham at her peak.
Her voice is unforgettable, anchored to the earth, a rich alto capable of astounding variations of timbre, range, and dynamics. She also uses with unsettling skill that peculiar choked, rattling sound of the Noh actor.
In "The Bacchae" she plays both Dionysus and Agave, merely by changing costume and then acting the difference. The grim climactic moment, as Agave emerges from a trance to realize she is carrying the head of the son she has just murdered, moving from recognition, to silent scream, to a quiet high-pitched wail, leaves an indelible mark on the imagination.
Two of the young American actors have done remarkably well in matching shiraishi: Tom Hewitt of Montana and John Rensenhouse of Kansas, the former as King Pentheus, and the latter as the Choregos/Cadmus. Hewitt in particular -- tall, manly, nobly handsome, with a splendid voice -- could become an important Shakespearean actor.
The Togamura festival is at present set in a cluster of century-old farm buildings, beautiful in their traditional carpentry and thatched roofs. The theater itself is simple, a bare platform, framed by four posts, recalling Noh, with entrance gangways right and left. The stage floor is made of a 14-inch square of reflective black aluminum laid over wood planks, giving all the focus to the costumed actor with his hand props.
There are no seats. The audience sits on the tiered floor, surrounding the stage on three sides. Suzuki's following, which includes an impressive gathering of the artistic and intellectual community of Japan, packs in for his annual festival, joined by a scattering of other nationals, this year Americans, English, Australians.
The close huddling -- shoulder to shoulder, and knee to back -- is part of the communal pleasure. When needed, platforms have been provided outside the windows, which are then thrown open to accomodate standees. Last season a handsome new lobby building, designed by famed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, was added to the complex. the after-show spectacle of several hundred people searching for their shoes in the lobby is an aspect of house management unknown in the West.
The meaning of "The Bacchae" has always been equivocal, allowing various interpretations. Suzuki sees it as a plea for the daily celebration of simple human pleasures, a sensible blend of both the instinctive and the reasonable. If the instinctive be denied, man can become fanatical and destructive. Thus King Pentheus, rigid in his rationality and conventional respectability, is an ever-recurring nuisance, generating murderous explosions out of politically enforced inhibitions. Man stays man at his best only when always seeking inspiration, and the theater at best serves this civilizing purpose.
Suzuki plans also a two-"Macbeth" summer, alternating Japanese and American. Working side by side on the same materials, theater artists using utterly different performance traditions will share their training methods and their common humanity.