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STAGE REVIEW : Noh Drama Reaches Across Ages

Times Theater Critic

More than 1,000 people gathered in the plaza outside the Japan America Theatre Tuesday to watch an evening of Noh theater. Many in the crowd could decipher the ancient words. But even for them the performance was “different.” And for those who didn’t know the language, it was very different.

But not defeatingly so. This is obviously a connoisseur’s art, with great importance attached to the way a sleeve is tossed or a flute note is attacked. There is a language under the language, and it needs to be closely read. If this is true of Kabuki theater, it is even more true of Noh, which scorns wow effects.

Yet you didn’t need to be an expert to enjoy Tuesday’s performance. (It was repeated Wednesday night in Costa Mesa.) To begin with, there were the curiosities of the form--the torches, the walkway, the drums, the flute, the square-rigger costumes, the masks, the ceremonial movement, the interplay between single actor and chorus.

Like Kabuki, but different. Slower and plainer. A show still, but less dedicated than Kabuki to being a show. The idea wasn’t to excite the audience, but to calm it down--to get it to attend to its own heartbeat. The story (one of them was about a beautiful lady who turned into a witch) would be like the figures on a jar. Looking at the jar would be the real exercise.

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Yet Noh never quite becomes a rite. It is a theatrical performance. And the second reason Tuesday’s show went so well is that it was conducted by experts. Masters? Not entirely. Some of the faces were rather young. (The main performers were from the Kita School of Noh, with the comic interludes--known as kyogen --performed by the Nomura Family.)

But clearly we were in the hands of artists who knew their metier and how to hold a crowd. Concentration is a big part of this, and the company needed it Tuesday night. The sky over the plaza was as noisy as it is at LAX. A police helicopter even sent a searchlight down. One or two of the actors raised their eyes, but the mood wasn’t broken.

“Masters” does apply to Kita Sadayo as the double-faced devil-woman and to Nomura Mansaku in the droll sketch about the servant searching for a snail--an actor who knows how to laugh, a rare skill.

It wasn’t an evening without emotion, but the emotion was generally kept under wraps, something sensed from the waver of a voice or the fall of someone’s eyes. Noh seems a stoic form, one that lets the audience read between the lines.

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What is on the line is most precise, particularly in terms of sound. Older Catholics in the audience were reminded of the old Latin High Mass. An even better comparison might be to Gregorian chant in a Trappist monastery--the surprising eloquence of plainchant carried by male voices of varying timbres.

Interestingly, the chorus would seem to pick up the hero’s sentence and finish it for him. This was confirmed by the translated libretto, where we saw, too, that the chorus and principals would narrate their own story, “Nicholas Nickleby"-style, as well as act it.

There is nothing new under the sun in theater. Noh goes back to beyond Shakespeare’s day, and in the torchlight seemed to go back even farther than that, to the priestly dance-dramas that prefigured Greek tragedy. (The nimble kyogen episode suggested servants and masters of Roman comedy.)

At the same time, Noh can provide hints to those who want the theater to ask bigger questions than “Why was Mother so mean to me?” and “Where did the ‘60s go?” A lot to think about, between helicopters.

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