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Under the Radar 2018: Mugen Noh Othello and Antigonón, un Contingente Épico

Offerings from the Japan Society and Cuba's Teatro el Público take the stage at the Public Theater's annual festival of experimental work.

Micari (Desdemona) and Maki Honda (Pilgrim from Venice) in a scene from Mugen Noh Othello at Japan Society.
(© Richard Termine)

Mugen Noh Othello
by Hayley Levitt

East meets West in Mugen Noh Othello, Japan Society's contribution to the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. Sukehiro Hirakawa takes Shakespeare's famous tragedy and reshapes it in the spirit of "Mugen Noh" — a theatrical structure centered around a ghostly protagonist who remains in the world of the living to share a historic and tragic tale. Othello's wife and ultimate victim, Desdemona (performed by Micari and voiced by Haruyo Suzuki), assumes this supernatural role, telling a pilgrim from Venice (Maki Honda) the story of jealousy and deception that led to her murder at the hands of her husband.

Shifting the lens from the title's Moorish general to his less examined wife is a satisfying concept that often inspires beautiful moments in director Satoshi Miyagi's traditional Noh staging. Desdemona's death scene creates a particularly striking image — Micari wearing the hand of her murderer like a glove that gruesomely wraps around her neck. And yet the production's inspired framework doesn't completely deliver on its implied promise to pull back the veil on Othello's heroine.

Perhaps the assumption of that promise is just Western theatrical expectations at work. But Shakespeare fans should understand going in that only the broad framework of Othello is carried over from the original text to Miyagi's production. Shakespeare's prose is not part of the experience (the Japanese dialogue is translated into English supertitles) and character study is minimal, with only some scenes performed by the characters themselves and the rest narrated by Desdemona.

The performance, consequently, becomes primarily her catharsis. She confesses her trials to the mortal world in an attempt to finally free her spirit, as Miyagi suggests in his program notes. It's an interesting way to blend two theatrical cultures, but one that doesn't particularly serve the Shakespearean side of the equation. In traditional Shakespeare, the language is broad and dramatic, but the sentiments are intimate and specific. Noh brings to the table emotion in much broader strokes, which can be powerful in their own right — particularly when accented by Hiroko Tanakawa's musical compositions and Kayo Takahashi's beautiful costumes. But if you're hoping for a greater, or even altered understanding of Shakespeare's text, you may leave disappointed.

What Mugen Noh Othello can offer, however, is a doorway into the art of Noh theater, which is difficult for Western audiences to understand and appreciate without prior cultural immersion. Japan Society is presenting New York audiences with a company of experts, so if you'd like to add Noh to your theatrical lexicon, these are the artists to turn to for a vocabulary lesson.

A scene and epic costume from Antigonón, un Contingente Épico, part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater.
(© Lessy Montes)

Antigonón, un Contingente Épico
by Dan Stahl

"Aren't men the same today as they've always been?" a nameless (and presumably timeless) son asks his mother in Antigonón, un Contingente Épico, an Under the Radar Festival offering from Cuba's Teatro el Público. The question is posed rhetorically, but the production answers it implicitly: Yes. The title itself signals as much, with its reference to Antigone, the mythical Greek heroine who defied the government to bury her brother Polyneices. She was one revolutionary; another, closer to this show's bleeding heart, was José Martí, the poet-warrior who died fighting for Cuban independence from Spain in 1895. Antigonón is "épico" in its scope, with actors reciting poetry that sweeps from antiquity to the Cuban revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries and into digital revolution of the 21st. If only it were less contingente ("hypothetical, conditional") and more coherente...

Things start simply enough, with two men and two women naked onstage. They don't speak but grapple with one another, their movements evoking not sex so much as power, dominance, and capitulation. The wordless language of their bodies transcends time and cultures, suggesting that human existence, in its most stripped-down form, has always been and always will be a power struggle.

When words do come, they're in verse, delivered by the actors in Spanish and projected as supertitles in English. Playwright Rogelio Orizondo's poetry sometimes echoes Martí, especially in its personification of Patria ("Homeland") as a sad, wrinkled woman wandering the streets. But there's also an explicitness and playfulness distinctly his own. "Sh*t!" exclaims one of the nameless characters. "Nothing rhymes with homeland."

The show's unembarrassed bluntness isn't surprising, considering it opens with full nudity; the number of layers Orizondo and director Carlos Díaz have piled on is. There are the mercilessly accumulating allusions to mythical and historical figures, prompting the question of when a national hero becomes a legend. There's the archival news footage of murders and more that starts playing behind the actors. Finally, and most spectacularly, there are the layers of clothing. Costume designer Celia Ledón knows how to turn trash into treasure and make treasure trashy in its garishness. Among her biggest triumphs are a headpiece of beer cans, plastic cups, and cocktail umbrellas, and a pearl chandelier-turned-peekaboo dress.

The problem with this show is that it too is peekaboo: tantalizing, yes — the costumes and naked bodies are both lovely to look at — but never satisfying. Worse, the parallel between Antigone and Cuba's revolutionaries never really gels. Sure, revolution is a messy thing, so it follows that a show about revolution would get messy too. But isn't the power of art to make some sense of madness?


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