The Japan Society, in New York, recently presented a Noh play coupled with a Kyugen play, in a program titled Noh & Kyogen: Masters of Performance- in Japanese with English side-titles. The actors were from Nohgaku Kyokai, and association of traditionalist performers.
These forms date back to the fourteenth century; they are a highly stylized, non-mimetic theatre. The Kyogen is a sort of curtain raiser, a comic piece. It cleanses our mind (as does all comedy) before the serious and stately Noh.
The Noh in this program was titled The Heavy Burden of Love. In it, a meek gardener falls in love with a grand lady who sets an impossible task as the price to look at her; he dies of a broken heart. But he returns as an avenging fury - in high costume, with a new mask and a white fright wig - looking like Doom itself!
All movement in the Noh is highly deliberate; much of it is graceful and grand. But when the ghost in this play looks at the lady, he moves his head with a sudden jerk. After so much gentle, subtle movement, the gesture is as violent as any I've ever seen.
This theatre is absolutely non-realistic. For example, the actors (always men) never attempt to imitate the feminine voice in female roles. Indeed, their voices are far from any real speech; the lines are metered, and the voice rises in pitch until the end of the phrase. The lead actors wear masks. It's the tension between what what's on stage and what it represents that explores mystery.
The visiting Japanese actors gave us a rare workshop in the Noh; it taught us how intricate the stylization is. This drama is a combination of music, dance, and song; there are about 200 Noh plays, but the musicians refer to them as "songs". The music is alien to ours, and unconcerned with melody. The flute and drums have sometimes the tranquility of the sounds of nature, sometimes the panic of a scream.
There are only about 25 movements in the Noh lexicon. They're put together like words with an ancient grammar. Inherently, they mean nothing. The single exception is the gesture indicating tears, the hand before the eyes, a universally understood gesture of grief, here refined several steps from life.
The acting us based on elements of tension and release. The actor's stance is familiar from the martial arts: feet apart, legs bent, channeling energy from the earth. Their arms are forward, gathering the energy of heaven. They point not with the index finger, but with the side of the pinkie. All in all, it's breathtaking.
- Steve Capra