Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Guest Review 22 (2019-2020): Review: ONE GREEN BOTTLE


By John K. Gillespie (guest reviewer)

Noda Hideki, Glyn Pritchard, Lilo Baur. All photos: Terry Lin.
Those who know Japanese playwright-director-actor Noda Hideki’s work would hardly be surprised by the helter-skelter farce One Green Bottle, adapted by Will Sharpe from Noda’s script. Spectators enter LaMama’s famed performance space to find a makeshift noh stage, with a very short hashigakari (bridge connecting the backstage area to stage right) and two pillars barely three feet high (faux replicas of noh stage pillars), one, downstage right, with electrical outlets and wires, the other, downstage left, made of wood. Spectators sit mainly in front of the stage, but, as in traditional noh, also off stage right near the hashigakari. Off left, a single musician, Tanaka Genichirō, produces mixed musical sounds from noh and kabuki.

Suddenly, the father, Bo, a noh actor, played by Lilo Baur, a Swiss actress, wearing standard noh costume, traverses the hashigakari slowly and deliberately (the noh movement advisor is Tsumura Reijirō), and enters the stage. Initially, all three actors attempt this sort of movement—not well, I might add, but perhaps that is simply integral to the farce. Then the mother, Boo, Noda’s role, enters wearing a flower-patterned kimono, her hair styled in outrageous 1940s glam, recalling the long-popular Japanese comic strip Sazae-san (by Hasegawa Machiko, running 1946 till 1974; also an animé), and immediately tangles with Bo, her husband, over whether she ever listens to him.
Noda Hideki.
Soon, daughter Pickles, played by Glyn Pritchard, a Welshman, in a strange, space-travel outfit (all costumes by Hibino Kozue), appears, adding fuel to the family fire. One can hardly ignore the gender bending—a female plays the father, males play mother and daughter—engendering considerable humor (the gentleman next to me laughed seemingly at every line) not to mention Noda poking fun at the traditionally all male noh and kabuki.

At stake in the family squabble is who stays home that evening to care for their pregnant dog, Princess. Bo claims his acting fame gives him the right to attend a highly important engagement, Boo has a Boyz of Noise concert she refuses to miss, and Pickles, denigrating Boyz of Noise as “not even music,” declares that, over tapas, she and her high-tech friends are going to develop important apps.

Asserting his (self) importance, Bo shouts to the two women, “Let me man-splane!” Noda’s characteristic wordplay is evident, as when Bo claims he must make his engagement, because of his “high standing,” to which Boo, unwilling to lose out, retorts that she is “standing very patiently.” And Pickles, digital-age child concerned about machines’ dominance, loudly asserts that “we are all ones and zeros” and that she and her friends must develop apps “to save the world.”
Glyn Pritchard.
The ensuing knock-down-drag-out fight wreaks total havoc on their home, well designed by Horio Yukio and lit by Christoph Wagner, with nearly everything destroyed, including their cellphones, landline phone, and the large television set embedded in the stage-rear wall. All brandish their inviolable personal agendas, none giving an inch, insisting that someone else look after pregnant Princess. In the melée, Boo retrieves Princess’s metal cuff with chain and somehow manages to clamp it on Bo, but he finagles Boo into position to chain her, and, before long, they shackle Pickles as well.           
Noda Hideki, Glyn Pritchard, Lilo Baur.
The rapid-fire action is punctuated by all manner of sound, ably designed by Hara Marihiko and engineered by Fujimoto Junko, including a TV loudly on the blink, electrical appliances shorting out, a squawking phone, a singing bowl, the use of hyōshigi (wooden clappers used in kabuki) and the sort of drum used in traditional Japanese performance that is held over the right shoulder and hit with the left hand, with music composed by Tanaka Denzaemon XIII.     
What are we to make of this sordid scene? The quick action is vintage Noda. He emerged over 30 years ago with his troupe Yume no Yuminsha (Dream Wanderers), adapting tales from manga (comics) and well-known stories, such as Tom Sawyer and Shakespeare’s comedies. Performances featured multiple characters, cutesy and childlike, tiered stages, cacophonic sound, ceaseless water-sprite movement, wordplay (often using archaic words drawn from Japanese classical theatre to give his performances a distinctly different feel) all appearing, beyond the immediate fun, to go nowhere in particular; the performance was the thing. His plays sold out, despite tickets being costly.

In 1992, he disbanded Dream Wanderers, went to London, improved his English and broadened his theatrical horizons so that some plays were hardly identifiable as Japanese. By 1993, he established NODA MAP, a Japanese company with global reach. He often collaborates with British playwright Colin Teevan and actress Kathryn Hunter. Noda’s work now is considerably more interesting conceptually and structurally than before 1993 and provides rich roles for actors, often non-Japanese. He has gained multiple awards and continues to be active as playwright-director and versatile actor, becoming artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in 2009.
Glyn Pritchard, Noda Hideki, Princess.
His accomplishment in this play is substantial, beginning with the Japanese title, Omote ni deroi! (表に出ろいっ!), smacking of yakuza (gangster) argot, meaning something like, “get the fuck outside (of the house) and we’ll settle it there!” There would appear to be no obvious connection to the English, One Green Bottle, unless one knows the ditty (as per one of several version): “Ten green bottles, hanging on the wall. And if one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’d be nine green bottles hanging on the wall.” Which continues till there is only one bottle, then none left, recalling the American children’s song, “Ten Little Indians.”

So, at the end of One Green Bottle, who’s left? As it happens, Bo, Boo, and Pickles are all there at the end, singing the ditty. But the family dysfunction has taken over and the destruction is complete. Bo intones: “We have imprisoned ourselves in our own home.”
That sorry state of affairs provides telling context for Pickles’s extended monologue when she articulates her existential vision. She claims her family is not Bo and Boo but “a family of free thinking individuals who . . . reject the ubiquitous toxicity of ridiculous societal pressures to think of [me] as a person . . . actually alive . . .  [to] embrace the near certain fact that we are inside a computer program . . . about to suffer a catastrophic failure. . . .” 

Boo thinks such doomsday musings are evidence that Pickles is in a cult, which, of course, she is, while Bo asks, “What makes you so sure the world is about to implode under the weight of its own absurdity?” This injects a meta-pattern into the play, since that’s exactly what has happened to his family, though Bo ironically fails to perceive it. Pickles reinforces this and gets to the heart of things, avowing to Bo and Boo that her cult members “understand me. They make me feel welcome [and] understood. I just want to be less lonely and you two don’t help with that. . . .”
Pickles is onto something here. She admits to taking medicine promoted by the cult: a truth pill. Truth may be the one aspect that this family needs to grasp what has befallen them. But truth, like the family and their home, has been destroyed. The only way left to them—to all of us, this play suggests—is to take the right medicine. In this way, Noda lifts the specific family issue before our eyes beyond the personal to a national level and provides trenchant comment on the current me-first drift of Japanese society with its demise of traditional, nuclear families, a complex demise loaded with ingredients such as self-regard taken to extremes.

From there, it’s hardly a stretch for his play to attain universal proportions. That might be easier to sense for Japanese, given their traditionally oriented, monolingual, mono-ethnic culture and their language where the word “individualism” (kojinshugi 個人主義) is defined as “selfish” and “egocentric” in Japanese dictionaries. There is, therefore, a starker contrast with Japanese tradition than with ours, though the impact of this play is quite timely beyond Japan, what with the global rise of populist nationalism and ubiquitous cries of “my country first.”
Although the play ends on a bleak note, there might be a thin silver lining: within the detritus-filled cloud, Princess (a stuffed dog) is brought on stage and delivers six puppies. Although she dies, she has birthed new life, not human but new life nonetheless. In addition, Boo, having inadvertently swallowed some of Pickles’ truth pills, pulls out a box hidden under the floor: it’s a series of locked boxes within each other, to reveal a set of Russian matroschka dolls. From the smallest, she digs out a tiny package and unwraps her apparently lost wedding ring. “I don’t like wearing it,” she says, “I just like knowing it’s there.”

New-born puppies and a long unworn wedding ring are not much to go on, but, with this dysfunctional family, it’s all there is.

LaMama Experimental Theatre Club
74A East 4th St., NYC
Through March 8

John K. Gillespie is one of the West’s leading scholar-translators of modern Japanese drama. He’s the co-editor, with Robert T. Rolf, of Alternative Japanese Drama: Ten Plays (University of Hawaii Press, 1992).