5/26/09 (Tue), Tokyo
This is a frequently revived one-woman show by the prolific Inoue Hisashi that’s been around since the early 1980s starring Watanabe Misako. Besides Japan, it’s been performed by Watanabe in Paris, London and the U.S. in Japanese, and there was a brief English-language production in London with Frances de la Tour under the name Greasepaint (much more evocative than the usual English title Makeup). The show was sold out throughout the entire run, but I was fortunate to get a same-day seat.
The show is a melodrama about the female director of a scrappy taishu engeki (大衆演劇) troupe, a type of theater for the masses, in an unnamed town. This is her final performance before her rundown theater is demolished. The single set, nicely realized, is the actress/director’s shabby dressing room, strewn with various props. While playing the role of a man who has abandoned his son, she is visited backstage by a famous singer who it seems might be the long-lost son that she herself had given up for adoption as a baby – that is, her life is mirroring the play. After the elation of encountering what she believes to be her grownup son, she is equally stunned when it turns out abruptly to have been a mistake, the boy leaving as suddenly as he came. Deserted by her would-be child (just as she had deserted her real child), she begins to grow mad. Her worlds become increasingly confused until we’re not sure where reality stops and fantasy begins. We come to realize that the many people she has been addressing throughout the show may only have been figments of her imagination, and it is unclear whether she is acting out the play or responding to actual events. The demolition crews yell at her to get out, but she is unmoved. By the end, as the theater comes down around her, she is basically insane.
The play is interesting enough in concept, if not particularly original. Its exaggerated emotions and actions, though way overdone at times, are not necessarily out of keeping with the taishu engeki background, where subtlety is not considered a virtue. Maybe it’s supposed to be the proof that she is simply living out her fantasies, an actress in her own invented drama, since real dialogue wouldn’t sound at all like that. The problem is that these contortions prevent the other characters (those she is supposedly interacting with) from truly coming to life. It neither rings true as real speech nor creates a credible alternate reality, so the characters border on contrivances. A lot of it feels like plot-filler, and I suspect the show could be cut considerably without losing much of importance.
What I found most irritating was the compulsion to put everything into words, no matter how strained, rather than let the scene speak for itself. For example, to convey an apparent request by the singer to see the amulet around the actress’ neck, she says, “え？さっき舞台で使ってたお守りを見せて下さいって？” (“What’s that? You want me to show you the lucky amulet that I used on stage just now?”). There must be a way to say this in normal speech without being so explicit. It’s lazy writing and tiresome viewing. She could try something like, “This? (holding the amulet) No, it belongs to me; I’ve had it for years” or such. We’d figure out quickly the gist of the conversation without having it rammed down our throats. The “You want me to show it to you?” is also unnecessary; just nodding and handing the charm to the imaginary visitor would be perfectly natural and easily understandable – it’s called acting. The author is leaving nothing whatsoever to our imaginations. There are plenty of such cases throughout the show, which is exasperating. Japanese writers are strongly prone to this type of thing. I remember a horrible show that a friend dragged me to years ago where the writer, struggling before a typewriter, kept muttering, “Ah, I have writer’s block. What do I do? And with the deadline so near… I have to write this chapter, and I can’t think of a thing” and on and on. He could have conveyed the same thing by just tearing pages frustratingly from the typewriter and throwing them into the wastebasket.
The saving grace in all this was Watanabe’s all-out performance. She has tireless energy even with the near-constant movement and stage business required of her, and she’s never in less than total command of the stage even when just putting on her Kabuki-like makeup. I didn’t find her character convincing or totally realized in the end, but I did like (or sympathize with) the woman, which I think comes from the performance rather than the writing. I’m sure other actresses would have their own take on this, but they have a pretty tough act to follow. Watanabe herself says that are own portrayal has changed over the years. I’d be interested in seeing her in other roles.
Regarding the show itself, it’s hard to know if mine is a minority opinion. The piece has established itself firmly in the repertory and has remained popular for well over 20 years now; it’s played at least 600 performances over the years, impressive by Japanese standards. But that still means that only a handful of people have seen it, and I wonder if the show’s random artificiality is appealing to the general public. I’d love to see a more realistic reworking. I thought of Woman In Mind this February, where a woman was similarly going mad. That show created an alternate world that was quite plausible from the woman’s standpoint, making for a much more cogent show. It’s probably too much to expect a rewrite in Japanese after all these years, especially as long as Watanabe is around. But I would think an English version is viable since a lot of the more unlikely dialogue (or monologue) could be filtered out, though they apparently made a mess of it in London with their pseudo-Cockney version. All is all, the show was worth seeing if only for what might have been.