Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima: The 14th Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Part 2

Bess Rowen
Oct 6 · 7 min read
Laura Dooley as Tao Kaja in Portland State University Kyôgens Company’s production of Busu, directed by Laurence Kominz. Photo by Nate Gowdy.

**This is part 2 of a series on the complete festival. To read part 1, click here.**

Busu / Traditional Kyôgen Play & Yukio Mishima / Portland State University Kyôgen Company & One-Eight Theater / Portland, OR & New York, NY

If you were to see a traditional Noh program, you would also have the opportunity to see a Kyôgen, a comedic interlude that separates the serious storytelling of the Noh plays in an evening. One of my favorites is a play called Kusabira (which translates to “Mushrooms”), in which a man is plagued by human-like mushrooms on his land. He calls for a priest whose attempts to banish the mushrooms, but only manages to make them multiply in number until he eventually summoning a gigantic mushroom who screams “I will eat you!” and chases the humans off stage. Although Kyôgen can be extremely funny and much more active than Noh, it is important to note that the traditional version of the form does not have the speed and physicality of vaudeville, but instead relies on the overall situation to produce the comedic effect.

This distinction is necessary to understand why I enjoyed this double-bill of Busu so much. The entertainment began with the Portland State University Kyôgen Company’s staging of the traditional version of the play. The players performed the piece with the traditional costumes and the style of intoned speech that are associated with the form. This is not to say that the experience was entirely “authentic,” as the players were not all Japanese men and the play was performed in English. I do not mention this distinction as a negative, as I thought the four person cast brought a diversity to the performance of the form that made it more accessible to a contemporary audience. I have seen several Noh companies perform such plays in the past and felt that director, performer, and translator Laurence Kominz did a wonderful job of capturing the feel of form. This is not a complete surprise, as Kominz’s academic history makes clear that he knows a great deal about Japanese drama. Yet not all academics can produce the things we study. This makes Kominz’s work here even more exciting to me. Kominz played the Master in Busu, who has a magical poison in a jar that he tasks his two servants, Taro Kaja (Laura Dooley) and Jiro Kaja (Mark Hayes) to watch while he travels. He warns them that only he is capable of handling the poison and even a shift of the wind that blows its scent towards them will be deadly. The servants are at first afraid, but soon become curious and want to look at the poison. Seeing the poison soon leads to an intense hunger that leads them both to eat every last drop of it. Panicking, the servants come up with a plan. They destroy an extremely expensive piece of pottery and kimono and wait for the master’s return. When he gets back and demands an explanation, the servants explain that they were fighting and broke the vase and ripped the kimono, which led them to be despondent enough to punish themselves by eating all of the poison in hopes they would die. But they did not die. The master is understandably annoyed, but order is restored as the audience delights in the dramatic irony of the servants’ story.

Director Daniel Irizarry as the Master with the busu in Yukio Mishima’s Busu. Photo by Nate Gowdy.

After seeing the traditional version of Busu, the stage was reset for Mishima’s version, translated by Donald Keene. One-Eighth Theater’s production rose to the challenge of showing how much more contemporary Mishima’s version feels by incorporating a vast array of comedic theatrical forms into the mix. The servants, now named Keith (Michael Leonard) and Chiz (Charlie Munn), had the timing and chemistry of a vaudeville pairing like Abbott and Costello mixed with the energy and character archetypes from the zanni of Commedia dell’Arte. The inclusion of a “splash zone” in the audience also made clear that this wasn’t going to be a traditional staging of any kind. The story was not altered one bit, but the physical action of the piece could not have been more different than the original. The busu itself was now green Jell-O, which was not only eaten, but rubbed all over the servants’ bodies and used as a means to slide around the stage. The destroyed piece of pottery was a pumpkin smashed with bats. At the end of the piece, the floor was littered with water, Jell-O, chunks of pumpkin, costume pieces, ripped cardboard signs, and the sweat of the performers who gave it their all. This deconstruction of Busu was so extremely different than, and yet exactly parallel to, what we had just seen at the beginning of the program that the delight was doubled! Once again, I must commend the director, this time Irizarry, for achieving precisely what I think he wanted to do, and for leading his company admirably. I thoroughly enjoyed both flavors of Busu and combining them into a single program was so satisfying that I won’t even try to hide from the master that I ate the whole thing!

(l to r) Marios Mettis as The Narrator and Runn Shayo as The Artist in Tennessee Williams’s The Angel in the Alcove, directed by Anthoullis Demosthenous. Photo by Nate Gowdy.

The Angel in the Alcove & Mushibushi (“Airing Old Clothes”) / Tennessee Williams / Poreia Theatre Group / Cyprus

Tennessee Williams is unusual in a number of ways, but one of the most fascinating things about his writing is that he often wrote several different versions of the same story. For example, The Glass Menagerie is the best-known version of a story also explored in the one-act play The Pretty Trap, the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” poems, and other meditations along the way. I begin here to say that I generally question a theatrical adaptation of a Williams short story, as he often did that work for us when he felt it necessary. Yet, this short story does have a clear connection to the later Williams play Vieux Carré, and I will say that director Anthoullis Demosthenous managed to capture the lurking spirituality and meditative qualities that haunt the short story and play. The simplicity of the storytelling that Marios Mettis brought to The Narrator was compelling to watch, as was the beautiful movements of Rann Shayo as The Artist. The lack of action in the short story actually tied the play to the Noh pieces in the festival, as did the religious framing that Demosthenous added to the piece — with Christian Orthodox traditions here replacing the Buddhist underpinnings of Noh. Unfortunately, this piece was so soothing that it was a little too much like a lullaby at certain moments, which is the danger of telling a story that does not have much action.

The second part of this program was a piece of performance art created and performed by Shayo featuring robotic spoken text and movement inspired by several Yukio Mishima haiku poems about his grandmother. Shayo’s grace and beauty were compelling to watch even though this piece did not have a narrative. A robotic voice spoken some text while Shayo tried on some dresses on the floor and played with items such as a leather flail. The piece was apparently drawing on the ways that Mishima steps into his grandmother’s persona in these poems. I found myself wanting the two pieces to have a more coherent connection built into them so that their combination seemed like more than a coincidence, although I found it exciting to have performance art be included as part of the festival’s program.

Yuhua Hamasaki in Yuhua Comes to Town! Photo by Bess Rowen.

Yuhua Comes to Town! / Yuhua Hamasaki

RuPaul’s Drag Race fans will recognize Yuhua Hamasaki from Season 10 of the show, where audiences did not get a chance to see the full range of what she could do. Her presence at the festival was exciting as it seems to indicate to me an increased integration of other kinds of performance, and performers, into the mix of the traditional festival offerings. This show marked Hamasaki’s first performance in Provincetown, which was especially interesting with an audience composed of Tennessee Williams fans and a few stray bachelorette parties. Her warmth and energy came through in this performance in a way I never got to see from her in Drag Race, and the audience was with her! And yet I can’t shake the feeling that she is still trying to figure out a cohesive brand. She did some lip-synching and had some fun moments of audience participation, but she did not have a costume change even though she is incredibly gifted at making costumes. I hope that she can continue to hone her show so that she can fully display all of her (charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and) talents, but in the meantime I would watch her perform again in a heartbeat!

Written by

Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance, Visiting Assistant Professor at Villanova University, theatre-maker.

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