“Fool’s Life” after Akutagawa in New York City
Here is a quick recommendation for a last-minute entry into this year’s Midtown International Theatre Festival: “A Fool’s Life,” which opened this evening and is scheduled to run at the Davenport Theatre (at West 45th Street) only tomorrow and Saturday evenings. The production by the Tbilisi Vaso Abashidze Music and Drama State Theatre (of Georgia) was evidently a late replacement for a choreographed drama based on Carmen (the cast of which, or some of them, were involved in a bus accident according to the scuttlebutt at the theater). The drama is a series of 13 scenes based on short stories by the early twentieth century Japanese master Ryūnoske Akutagawa and is performed in the Georgian language without any subtitles or audio translation, only a (badly translated) sketch of each of the scenes handed out with the program. The addition of this piece was so rushed that I could find no list even of the names of any of the five actors (pictured above right).
Now all of this may set off red lights warning you from attending, but you should fight the urge. Ryūnoske Akutagawa is nearly unknown in the West, a mistake that really should be rectified. If known at all it is for two stories, “Rashomon,” which provides the frame story for Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of the same name and “In a [Bamboo] Grove,” which provides the narrative of the same film. Only a couple dozen of his 150 or so stories are translated into English (in any reasonably accessible form at any rate), but the evidence from these stories shows that he was an important modernist in his own right. Akutagawa early on was influenced by W.B. Yeats, who himself was influenced by Japanese Noh theater. Akutagawa at least in part found his own modernist interpretation of ancient Japanese tradition through the Irish poet. Over the course of his short life (he died in 1937 at the age of 35 from an overdose of barbiturates) his work (and probably his consciousness) became increasingly hallucinatory and self-involved.
The story “A Fool’s Life” was one of his last stories. That story and others was fashioned by David Doiashvili, the young director of the Georgian state theater, into a performance piece, involving music and movement for five actors. The story itself is dreamlike. Sensei (the stand-in for Akutagawa) is a writer with hallucinatory episodes. His manservant Gonske is devoted but is keenly desirous of learning from his master how to become a saint. At breakfast they see through the window a young couple and they speculate on the conversation between them. Sensei then decides to reduce the dialogue to writing and instructs his servant to prevent any interruption. But the very couple, now with odd head-gear and robes, come to talk to Sensei, who calls Gonske to eject them. Gonske, however, finds no one but his master present and administers medication to Sensei. The couple, however, again appear and tell their names (Sinzo and Ottos) and tell Sensei that a wizard, Ossima, has placed obstacles between them. The wizard tells Sinzo that he will die unless he gives up Ottos. Sensei’s writing of the story brings the lovers together and they recite the dialogue that Sensei had proposed for them while watching them at breakfast. Sensei is advised of the threat by the wizard and eventually conceives a solution—for Ottos to terrify the wizard by invoking the name of a spirit. Sensei calls out to the lovers to tell his idea, but once again his servant says that no one is present but him. The lovers, as seen by Sensei, are in the midst of a rainstorm, but once again Gonske only sees his master and tries to retrieve him from the rain. Sensei insists that miracles can happen and during the storm the wizard is killed by lightning. Alone again Gonske again asks his master to teach him how to become a saint. Sensei tells him to climb a tall tree and then let go with first one hand, then the other. Gonske falls in a stylized movement, and Sensei returns to his mundane concerns (which the notes say is his search for a razor, evidently a theme in the dialog throughout, but of course not evident to the majority of the audience who have no knowledge of Georgian).
What makes the performance worth the experience for non-Georgian speakers is the brilliantly conceived movement choreography. It suggests ancient Japanese theater practices, but probably is even less “authentic” than Yeats’s invocation of Japanese tradition. But one would not experience this for its 90 minute duration if he were only interested in theatrical history. In the event, the movements are visually imaginative. The arm motions of the actor portraying Sensei are graceful and evocative. The young lovers move in ways that are formally innocent and then stylistically erotic. The manservant, the “fool” of the title, is less a Shakesperian fool than a foil with a foolish wish, which in the end is granted. The movements are so mesmerizing that the experience is generated with next to no set and only a few props (hats, a parasol and two crutches). The staging consisted of two metal chairs and a canvas overhead which provides the rain in the form of confetti. Despite (or possibly because of) the minimal effects the elusive (but often talked of) theatrical magic was palpable in the small space of the main stage of the Davenport Theatre.