Saturday, January 27, 2007

Noh Theater

Today we went to a Noh play. At first it was odd, then boring, and then it evolved into one of, if not the, strangest things I have every seen in my life. The show started at 11:00AM and ended at 5:00PM. It was divided into three main sets with a twenty minute introduction, two groups of soloists, two intermissions, and a short comic relief skit in the middle to break it up.

Now, I was under the impression that Noh theater excluded speaking of any kind and involved dramatic, albeit slow, acting. The show we saw was just the opposite. The acting was quite minimal, though still slow, and consisted mostly of entering the stage, exiting the stage, sitting, standing, turning, opening a fan, and closing a fan. The dialog, or singing I should say, was very low and deep, and performed by the masked Noh players, their unmasked compatriots, and a seated choir. All were men. Of course, we couldn't understand a word of it, which made it rather difficult to get through at times (remember we were there for six hours.)

The costumes were fabulous! The choir, musicians, and stage hands wore formal black kimonos with their family seals marked five times in white on the front, back and sleeves. With this, they wore simple grey hued Japanese pants. The Noh compatriots (for lack of a better word) had brightly colored brocade kimonos emblazoned with gold patterns, and very stiff, large, cream colored, triangular pants. Neat. The masked Noh players had masks, obviously, bearing a tortured expression, and a wig. Their kimonos were generally more subdued in color, but with complex asymmetrical designs. Rather than pants, most wore a closer fitting skirt. Each had a hand prop as well, usually some kind of stick, be it cane, rake, broom, or branch. The amount of fabric used in each costume was astounding. Each main set had 2-3 compatriots and 1-2 masked players.

And I haven't got to the strange part yet: the percussion group. There were two main drummers for each set, sometimes joined by a third. The first played his drum with one hand while holding in his lap with the other; it made a short loud "pop" noise. The second also played his drum with one hand, but held it against his shoulder. It made a slightly longer and lower "bop" noise. The occasional third played his drum on the floor with two short thick wooden sticks., making a low "bom" tone. Now, the precursor to any striking of the drums was a series of yells. These yells, from what I could tell, meant nothing in Japanese, and were more like a "la la la" in Western music. But it was nothing like "la la la." I can not even try to replicate the sounds they made. The third drummer would make a high "Yaaah - ha"call, raising his stick high in the air before letting out a "bom" on the drum. The second did a "Yoh - ho, ho" deal before striking. And the first, my favorite, made sounds that I imagine a dying fox would make, lain out in the snow. A sort of wavering low "Yoh" followed by a much higher, broken "Oo-oh-o," intentionally cracking his voice, and with a dramatic sideways arm gesture "popping" his drum. (For two hours without losing his voice!) The rhythm of this was something of a space-time anomaly, possibly related to syncopation, but with random stops and breaks leaving you expecting a third beat when none was given. It was all quite amazing, and I can see how one could go mad by seeing too many of these performances.


Anonymous said...

hey Lady and Man, thank-you for your photos and the stories. Thinking of you. Take care. Ng'e.

Anonymous said...

What an experience and to think that you were able to sit through it all - congratulations! Is there anyone you could talk to who could perhaps explain some of the music, scenes, etc? Were you able to take pictures? The costumes must have been wonderful - maybe some sketches. Bonnie