The first minute of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre’s One Green Bottle, running at La MaMa through 8 March, is already well worth the ticket price. Where else in the States can one see Japanese noh performed (albeit briefly), complete with kimono, fan, wooden bridge, and black-robed musician? Kneeling with zen-like calm amid an embarrassment of musical riches, Genricho Tanaka utters baffled grunts and muffled wails as he strikes a shoulder drum at syncopated intervals. Is this traditional music or modern minimalism? And Lilo Bauer’s ecstatically slow entrance along the footbridge seems equally familiar to cinephiles fond of epic, slow-motion walks (the opening of Reservoir Dogs, or any of these).
This bridging of ancient and modern, of pious tradition and absurdist farce, is in many ways the play’s driving force. That it succeeds with such admirable lightness without in any way diminishing the traditions it lampoons is largely to the credit of writer/director Hideki Noda. It’s a bit like watching a brilliant comic roast someone they love and respect.
The subversion begins with Noda’s decision to cast himself as a traditional Japanese housewife (Boo) and Swiss actress Lilo Bauer as her husband Bo, a “master of the classical stage” from a theatrical tradition that excludes women. Both are hilarious in their opening spat over who will stay home tonight with their pregnant dog Princess and what’s to be done with their selfie-obsessed daughter Pickle. When Pickle enters mid-argument in the form of seasoned actor Glyn Pritchard, the absurdist triangle is complete.
All three have secret plans for tonight, but one has to stay with Princess. Who will it be? Pickle pouts and preens, Boo mocks and mimics, Bo struts about in split-toe socks. But the truth will out, and before long they find their secrets revealed and their ankles locked in a predicament none can escape.
The set, like the plot, is a kind of elaborate trap. Apart from being a wonder to behold, Yukio Horio’s set conceals even more secrets than the characters themselves. To tell those secrets here would be to give away a magician’s tricks. Suffice to say they build to a disturbing climax in precisely the manner of a good magic show. And they do so without diverting attention to themselves and away from the story.
Which brings me to the story. This was perhaps the one area I felt could have been taken a bit further. After all the escapist antics of act one, the characters seemed too quickly resigned to their fate. Once the trap had been sprung, the story became all stick and no carrot. There was no hope, nothing to strive for. Anything—the postman knocking twice, the daughter nearly repairing her broken cellphone—a single false hope would have kept the characters and the audience on edge. Instead we are treated to a series of poignant scenes, bracketed by blackouts, as preludes to the inevitable. The result is sometimes touching, but at the expense of dramatic tension.
This minor note aside, I would strongly recommend One Green Bottle. It’s a rare vintage, full of comic moments and artistic flourishes. In biblical terms, it’s new wine in old wineskins, and it bursts at the seams with flawless comic timing. Best of all are the countless sly references to Japanese theatrical forms. Apart from noh, there’s kabuki in the actors’ poses and Tanaka’s Foley work, bunraku puppetry in the hilarious bit with the stuffed dog, and probably many more that sailed over my Western head. The production as a whole reminded me of the paintings of Takashi Murakami. There is so much colour, so many references, so much going on, that one is simply overwhelmed—with laughter and admiration.
“One Green Bottle” runs through March 8 at La Mama. For more information visit lamama.org/one-green-bottle.