Tele-Violet’s “Lady Han” at Incubator Arts Project

photo: Kenneth Wills

photo: Kenneth Wills

Tele-Violet’s Lady Hanwhich refracts the 15th century Noh drama through the goggles of an Americana fever dream, premiered at Incubator Arts Project this month. The emerging NYC theater company, led by stage director Katherine Brook, uses the classical Japanese text, Zeami in Royall Tyler’s translation, as a structure of longing for a different kind of New York theater and an armature for a melancholic kitsch hypnosis in the here and now of St. Mark’s Church, February 2013.

Lady Han or Hanago (Jessie Shelton) is a sex worker who stops seeing new clients after Yoshida (Andrew Dinwiddie), a cowboy-y traveler, gives her his fan and occupies her fantasy. In response to Han’s inability or refusal to work, her “Proprietress” (Louisa Bradshaw) fires her. Alone with a servant dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Brighid Greene), Hanago obsesses over her lost object in a protracted poetic state. Finally, Yoshida returns via flying carpet on wheels with servants (Ethan Fishbane and Nicolas Norena), recognizes the fan, and he and Hanago are married. Meanwhile the Chorus, here played by a couple in vintage synthetic prints (David Gould and Lena Moy-Borgen), lounge on a couch opposite the audience, look at us, reflect our heroine’s pain and moan into microphones. Denim-clad composer Taylor Brook live-mixes these vocals into a plangent ambience accompanied by banjo and tambourine that underscores most of the 70-minute torch song.

When we enter the upstairs theater it is Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” that greets us. A tilting magenta roof garlanded with pink streamers and strip lights hangs above a slick wood floor, skewing the stage in diagonal opposition to the audience as if an indoor Noh theater (recursive already), a barn dance, and a strip club collide. The black columns that always interrupt the stage somehow make more sense than ever before, enfolding into the setting quite seamlessly.

The play begins with a Kyogen (text by Morgan Gould and Dolly Parton) satirizing hipster audiences delivered by Bradshaw’s Proprietress as disaffected stand-up. Her camp-y direct address soon shifts into weird lip-synched exposition, the first of many textual mutations.

A stretchy choric relation to story-telling and character is apparently a part of Noh theater but, to crudely analogize, reminded me at the time of Elfriede Jelinek, Gertrude Stein, or Daniel Fish’s Tom Ryan Thinks… from IAP’s 2011 spring season. Dinwiddie’s Yoshida prompts his servants in whisper to echo him. Greene’s Rudolph, similarly, mirrors Han while the Chorus often keep things going in third person. What to make of these modes of narrative amplification or diffusion? The sponging or dissolving of the subject? While watching, I basically read everything in conversation with other work I’ve seen in New York this season but some research identified many elements as tracking with aesthetics from Zeami’s time, such as a small pine tree mounted on the back wall. Masks, surprisingly, were not retained. Though wigs, noses, hats, and neutral facial expressions adorned the bodies.

Part of me has no idea what I felt or thought or how to express either in affective, aesthetic, or political terms. I have hardly studied traditional or contemporary Noh Theater and I imagine many spectators were as unfamiliar as I. Was that the point? What is going on in this transcultural transhistorical palimpsest? I think of Brecht and Artaud’s turn to Eastern performance and am curious how this work or its reception might and might not practice some kind of Orientalism.

Per the supporting materials: “the piece takes audiences down an alternate path to use the theatre as a place of contemplation and focus, attempting to slow down our minds and explore the beauty and sadness in contemporary American popular culture.” How to think about this reorganization?

Brook and her team’s sensitivity may lie with the tensions and impasses of representational theater. They emphasize the friction in translation’s failure: responding to the archaic with the anachronistic and insisting on simultaneous temporalities. The characters repeatedly talk of autumn though the work is performed in February and explicitly so. Couching the seasonal specificity of Zeami’s drama in the commercial trappings of two major Anglo-Christian US holidays makes for a weird perceptual work out and parallax.  Timeframes (fictive and felt) rub against each other provocatively.

Periods of suspension warp the performance. The melting choreography sets bodies rotating slowly and executing intricate footwork in group movement drawn from line dancing to yoga. Grammar from burlesque or forms of spectacular feminine labor, such as squatting, are slowed down and repeated to the point of meditation and abstraction. The calm yet threatening gaze of the performer in motion teases us as if full of secrets. Voices rise and fall, alternately intensifying and numbing the theater with waves of visceral polyphony. One of Shelton’s solo numbers is especially show stopping. But we do not applaud. We are attuned yet restrained. What is Broadway musical embodiment without the audience’s recognition? From an interactive performative to a kind of self-care/critique; the presentational becoming private?

The biggest reference to Valentine’s Day comes in the final tableau when a string of paper hearts unfurls with the ambiguous closing line “they know the deep affection of husband and wife.” The play seems to affirm marriage and critique sex work as it frames both within contemporary capitalism. Is Han simply moving from one form of traffic in women to another? Or is the production after a feminist revision of all these categories? What would they mean in Zeami’s time? Does theater just happen here and now? I basically know nothing about the sexual practices or constructions of 15th century Japan but have read that the artist had intimate relationships with men and women in his lifetime.

The work contemplates forms of attachment. “You got me” marks one especially pop choral refrain. How do we keep each other in mind? The continual co-presence of performers onstage begs the question. Actors may remain while characters are absent. That particular poignancy of theatrical time and space seems echoed in a glimpse of idle stage equipment illuminated in the highest catwalk just before the ending darkness. Theater heaven?

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