by Saviana Stanescu · September 24, 2014
I first encountered Chiori Miyagawa’s beautiful play This Lingering Life two years ago, attending a staged reading produced by The Civic Ensemble, imaginatively directed by Norm Johnson. The intermingled stories/characters crossing times and geographies haunted me for a while with their strange, tragic, humorous and appealing undertones. The play enjoyed its world premiere at Z Space in San Francisco last June where The San Francisco Examiner called it “a funny, wise, philosophical and thought-provoking puzzle.” Moreover, it is a Theatre Bay Area inaugural Awards finalist.
Cake Productions has produced this New York premiere of the “epic comedy with grave tragedies” under the energetic directorial wand of Cat Miller. It is a shorter version of the play, infused with the hectic pace of modern-day life.
In This Lingering Life, Chiori Miyagawa re-mixes and re-imagines nine 14th-century Japanese Noh plays. The ghosts, warriors, mad women, angels and demons of the oldest form of living theatre – Noh – are getting fresh dramatic reincarnations in contemporary and timeless situations.
A Woman with Tragic Hair (the fascinating Meg MacCary) wanders in “bardo”, an in-between space between the dead and the living, or an intermediate/liminal state between two lives, that might be inhabited by all characters. The bizarre woman’s hair grows upwards and she is not sure whether she is the narrator or not. By the end of the play we figure out that she is indeed a compelling if not fully reliable narrator.
For those who don’t know much about Noh theatre, here are some basic things to start with: The aesthetics of Noh derive from the Buddhist emphasis on Zen, or contemplation, aiming to induce YUGEN (grace), a mood or state of mind responsive to the mysterious and transitory beauty of the performance. Noh plays are not driven by the cause-effect narrative logic of Western drama but typically centered on scenes of revelation that climax in the main actor's principal dance. A Noh play should “evoke the flower,” as Zeami – Noh’s main theorist and playwright - named the fusion of esthetic, spiritual and moral beauty arising from the performance. The slow and ceremonial movement was brought to perfection in decades as the training of a Noh actor in the 14th century was supposed to be lifelong.
Time and place fold and collapse into each other in Chiori Miyagawa’s fluid play, as she manages to paradoxically preserve and challenge the Noh influences.
This Lingering Life explores the enigmatic human condition through the Buddhist concept of Karma, revealing ancient longings and complex e-motional dynamics.
The play interweaves the journeys of feudal warriors, mystical gangsters, sane and insane mothers, a blind beggar, an angel on roller-skates, an old gardener, lovers born to enemy houses, and other sentient beings as they intersect in the labyrinth of human existence.
The cast of 10 play various roles in intriguing cross-gender/cross-race/defy-expectations interpretations meant to suggest that we are all different yet the same as we share the tragic-comic essence of humanity. They all create compelling characterizations. I was especially impressed by the versatility and nuanced performances of Vanessa Kai (Mystical Gangster, Crazy Woman, Old Gardner), Luke Forbes (Gangster on the Run, Boy, Princess, Backpacker 2), Francesca Day (Wife, Young Gardener’s Girlfriend), Amir Darvish (Son, Warrior’s Mother, Newcomer), William Franke (Backpacker 1, Young Gardener, Father) and Stephanie Weeks (Young Warrior, Angel, Single Mother, Secretary).
Chiori Miyagawa, a Japanese-born playwright based in NYC, started adapting Noh plays out of “an imaginary obligation to pay homage to the culture”. The result is much more than a tribute to a cultural heritage. It is refreshing to see a show that challenges mainstream naturalistic Western theatre in a playful, witty and meaningful way, exposing our lingering sense of global inter-connection.