Monday, February 28, 2011

Performing Kabuki at PSU- Kabuki Part 3

Every other summer at Portland State University, Professor Larry Kominz offers a class on Kabuki in which the students spend about a month preparing for and then actually perform a short Kabuki play. My class performed a play called "Uiro Uri" (The Medicine Peddler) about a famous hero named Soga Goro. Goro is best known from the Soga Monogatari (Soga Tale), which tells how Goro and his brother get revenge against their father's murderer. The play we performed is a short excerpt from that story, describing Goro's attempt to disguise himself as a medicine peddler and kill his father's murderer on his own.

Prof. Kominz, performing a samurai dance

In preparing for the performance, we broke the class up into small groups to take on different tasks. The groups included: make-up, props, sound, wigs and costumes. Additionally we were sorted into various roles for the performance: main characters (Goro, the villain, the comedian, the courtesans, etc.), flower soldiers (my role), sound and lights, and kuroko. Kuroko can best be described as "stage ninja". They're basically dressed in all black with masks, and their job is to help out on stage- moving props, assisting with scene changes, etc. What's interesting about them is that they can be seen clearly by the audience, who is expected to simply ignore their presence on the stage.

You can see a Kuroko hiding behind Goro's chair here.

In addition to being a flower soldier, I was also in charge of the costume group. I made the costume for the main character, Goro. Basically this was an inner red kimono, an outer blue kimono, an orange vest and a blue hat. I made most of it by myself over a weekend, with some help from my group member. It sounds like a lot, but kimono are actually quite easy to make (provided you do it non-traditionally with a sewing machine) and it came together very quickly.

Most of the main characters had to paint their faces. As a flower soldier I didn't have to, but it was very interesting watching everyone else getting ready back stage. Most of our actors had help applying their make-up from the make-up team, but real Kabuki actors do their own make-up. 

Mark, who played Goro, did a great job doing his own make-up.

The finished product!
We began the performance with two short buyo dances, one feminine and one masculine. Memorizing these two dances was probably the most difficult part of the class for me, if only because it was fairly time consuming. But they were really fun and I enjoyed learning it!

Women's buyo dance

Men's buyo dance
The play opened with the villain holding a feast with his "court"; Soga Goro then appears, disguised as a medicine peddler. At the time these merchants were famous for using rhymes and tongue-twisters, supposedly as a way to get customer's attention. Goro performs a very long tongue-twister, the only part of the play which was done in Japanese (the rest had been translated into English). This is followed by a dance performed by the courtesans. 

The courtesan's dance

Eventually Goro reveals his true identity, which leads to a fight scene between him and the flower soldiers. As I mentioned in the last post, Kabuki fight scenes are very stylized, more about showing off acrobatic tricks than looking like a real fight. I had done some gymnastics in high school, so I did a few basic tricks for the fight scene, like a cart-wheel, and doing a flip onto a pole held by two other soldiers, who then lifted it up over Goro for the final "mie" (pose). 

The lift from the end of the fight scene! That's me up top.

All of the sound effects during the play were produced by these wooden blocks and a small drum. It's pretty incredible how effective something so simple can be. 

The instruments used for sound effects.

At the end of the performance, we held a short Q&A with the audience. It was really fun discussing our experience with everyone and hearing what people thought of the play. There were many Japanese people in the audience, who were impressed with the English translation, and many Americans who were seeing Kabuki for the first time.

The final scene!

Complete cast, including the sound/light people and kuroko.

 Finally we celebrated at an izakaya (Japanese pub) near the theater. It was a fantastic experience altogether and I made a lot of really good friends. I learned a lot about Japanese culture and what Kabuki is, and it was definitely my reason for taking an interest in Japanese theater. I'm really excited to be in Japan now and can't wait to go see the real thing one day soon.

Celebrating at Biwa, an izakaya, after the show

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