Shishi-Oh (獅子王 )

獅子王 (Shishi-Oh), 5/3/16 (Tues), Las Vegas MGM

I coincidentally happened to be in Los Angeles after a visit home, and decided to extend my trip by a day to take in the opening night of this new Kabuki piece by Somegoro (I had written the program notes). It was billed as a narrative based on the classic Kabuki dance piece Renjishi (The Lion Dance) and incorporating Vegas-style lighting, sound and technology. It’s always suspicious when they use special effects since the temptation is to use that to create an artificial sense of excitement rather than to complement the story – I’ve never been a fan of Super Kabuki despite its popular success. Still, such techniques have been used to good effect in some cases, like Ninin Wankyu (二人椀久) and Ennosuke’s Kurozuka (黒塚). It seemed risky to try out a new show overseas before testing it at home, but maybe the idea was to iron out any faults before taking it to more Kabuki-proficient audiences back home. Las Vegas in any case is a theatrical graveyard, especially the Strip, since these are not Kabuki audiences by any stretch of the imagination. At least the lion dance seemed a reasonable choice for the MGM Grand, whose mascot is after all a lion.

In the end, it was an utter fiasco. The story was unfathomable, basically a quilt work of set pieces from entirely unrelated dramas, like Kinkakuji (mouse-drawing scene), Sukeroku (Agemaku’s entrance and more) and Renjishi (lion dance), tied by a tenuous storyline. Those scenes are exciting in their original shows only because we know the characters and stories, giving them the proper context. This was effectively a gala concert of best-of sequences with no emotional impact whatsoever. The play may not be the thing for Kabuki aficionados, who are more interested in the intricacies of the individual performances, but it is crucial for foreigners who have never seen a mie or oiran and such and need a plot to make those work. A narrator addressed the audience in English to explain some scenes, but that in itself showed a lack of confidence in the material. They would have been better off using subtitles; the many Japanese in attendance couldn’t understand the English (actually I couldn’t either in some cases given the heavy accent), and others couldn’t understand the Japanese. So what’s the point? Some of the English was itself suspect. The narrator noted that Kabuki was founded in 1603, “before the Declaration of Independence” – well, yeah, it’s before the Civil War too, and before the internet. How about before Jamestown in 1607? That would have been a more logical comparison. This was lazy writing all around both in English (the less said, the better) and Japanese.

The show opened not with the normal curtain but translucent panels resembling shoji screens on which flowers were projected. Other images were projected throughout the show not only on the stage but on the walls on either side in a kind of theatrical panavision, a case of projection for projection’s sake. If they’re going to do this, they need to do it right and integrate it into the show proper; they need lessons from Robert Lepage. B said aptly that here it was basically Panasonic masturbation. That was the same for the stage effects, which couldn’t remotely compare to the spectacular tricks in Ka in the same hotel. Better to do what Kabuki does best than to compete on Cirque’s terms. The lack of a clear story hurt here as well: K said that Somegoro’s flying sequence, with all the baffling hand and leg movements, made the actor look less like a hero than a bug tied to a box. Part of the problem was the size and structure of the theater, a relatively small place built for magic shows that could barely hold the hanamichi (a strange twisted affair). But they should have thought of that before coming. Similarly, the music was amplified, which was pitiful, and I’m not sure it was even live in some cases. The musicians were given some fun sections, including an unexplained narrative burst of “she sells sea shells by the sea shore”, but not enough to sustain interest.

The actors did their best in this mess, but they were defeated by the material. The only memorable part was Somegoro’s street performance sequence, especially when he turned around with a Michael Jackson mask and did a moonwalk, which got a lot of laughs. The rest of the show was hard to judge since the scenes were so random and the story so ridiculous. I can safely predict that this will be the first and last production of this show.

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