Tairo Jo: Puppet Medea

Taira Jo’s Medea, 17 Jan 2016, Tokyo 

A puppet version of the Greek tragedy performed by Taira Jo, who adapted, directed, designed and performed the entire show and all characters. As a puppet lover, I had been curious about his plays, so this seemed as good a chance as any. Knowing this was a one-man show, I had expected an hour-long play and was taken aback when I heard it was in fact in two-and-a-half hours. And that was on top of my skepticism as to whether Medea is really a good choice for a puppet show. That said, I happily sit through Bunraku plays for five hours (though those involve a significantly larger cast), so I was willing to give this a chance.

It turned out to be a very appealing concept superbly realized. The puppets were life-sized cardboard creations with vaguely human-looking features. The lesser characters had movable heads and full bodies, which he would shift around as needed, with the help of three kurogo (hooded assistants). The main characters were overly large masks that he would carry around the stage, allowing for more vivid action. He would hang those on stands when needed, but they remained fully engaged as long as they were on stage as he continued to voice them. He would play all characters on stage at any one time, but his adept movement and various vocal tones left no confusion as to who was speaking. He played some characters without any puppets at all, such as the narrator and Jason, giving some variety to the proceedings. The show involved constant movement as he switched quickly back and forth among characters (and butterflies and flames and clouds and more), brought them on and off stage, and gave them varied patterns to identify them. His visible sweat was well earned.

The script involved narration (the chorus) as well as dialogue, all of which he delivered confidently. He added a clever prologue at the beginning, using flowers to represent characters in order to give their backgrounds and tell what’s transpired to now. It was a big plus, since it makes the story and motivations of the characters, especially Medea, much more understandable. I wish this were included in all productions. There was a bit of confusion as to how the princess died, a scene that opens Act II. She is usually felled by a poisoned robe, which also kills the father when he touches it trying to save her. The weapon here seems to have been a tiara that consumed her in flames, which burned the father to death as well. But then what was the robe all about? That needs work. The ending was unclear as well; none of us knew what exactly happened to Medea, and the dialogue veered on sentimental rather than tragic. (Medea: “Do you still love me?” Jason: “I don’t know…” Is he kidding?? After she murdered his sons?) I’ve never seen a production that makes Medea’s actions and thus her personality entirely believable, and this was no exception. But that’s really my own problem with Euripides – I guess I’m a bit slow. In any case, until that final part, the dialogue was quite fine, and the story never flagged.

There were not many real costumes as such, but the cardboard representations worked just fine. Jo does need to jettison the bikini top he wears underneath his robe. I’m not sure what effect he’s aiming at, but it looks dumb. If he needs freedom of movement, he’d do better just to wear a tank top, which would be much less distracting.

All in all, a worthwhile production. I understand that the cardboard puppets are usually reserved for his kid’s shows, while his adult-oriented shows have more lifelike puppets. But I thought they worked quite well here. Taira’s next show is a puppet Hamlet – he’s ambitious if nothing else.

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