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Red Bird for Danger

L-R: Aya Hirose as Blind Woman, Tsuguki Hayashi as General Store Owner, Takako Tanaka as Young Girl

L-R: Aya Hirose as Blind Woman, Makiko Iwashita as Teacher, Morihiko Uchiyama as Mayor, Atsuo Hasegawa as Brother
Photos by Teruo Tsuruta

by Jonathan Slaff

Kiyama Theatre of Japan returns in "A Scene With A Red Bird" by Minoru Betsuyaku. NY Premiere for leading absurdist of the Japanese stage. Three performances only.

Kiyama Theatre Productions from Tokyo returns to NY October 13 to 16, 2006 to perform "A Scene With A Red Bird" by Minoru Betsuyaku for three performances only at American Theater of Actors (ATA), 314 West 54th Street. Betsuyaku is the leading absurdist playwright of Japan. The company has been here twice before with too-brief productions of Japanese masterpieces.

"A Scene With A Red Bird" is a fable that depicts Japan's civil society after World War II. The story centers around a blind woman and her younger brother, who decide to work off their parents' debt after their suicide but are suppressed by a committee which had been formed to investigate the parents' suicides. The woman's devotion to the debt brings anxiety to the townspeople who hope for nothing but a quiet, undisturbed life. This makes her a "red bird" -- a symbol of danger or a red light to a society that is unable to face its collective guilt.

The play begins with a funeral scene after the suicide of the parents. A Traveler appears at the funeral who claims to have loaned money to the parents. He is questioned by a Man from the Committee. The Blind Woman recalls the day that Traveler visited their house: her parents were acting extremely awkwardly, while the Traveler should have been treated as a honored guest.

Blind Woman, her Brother and the town people visit a town where the committee is holding a carnival and the population is marched around in ridiculous rituals, wearing conical hats. (The play was written in the late '60s, when the quality of life for the Japanese was improving, but issues of a "controlled society" started to be argued.) There the traveler has been arrested and tells of his lonely life story: he started his money lending business because he wanted to be close to people. He offers to dissolve the Parents' debt if the blind woman will marry him. The Blind Woman rejects the offer and chooses to work off the debt. The Brother, finding himself unable to work, becomes a thief and murderer and dies in a jailbreak attempt. Upon losing her younger brother, the Blind Woman declares in her final statement, "Even if I can only eat half as much, I'm going to pay back the debt. I think that, the important thing is not that I pay off the debt, but I keep paying back . . ."

The metaphors of this plot are not immediately obvious. The debt symbolizes what the society of Japan owes to Korea for crimes during World War II. The Blind Woman and her brother symbolize youth, which can accept the obligation to work for forgiveness. The committee represents society at large, for whom moral issues fall away in times of prosperity. The parents are the Japanese people, whose awkwardness with a guest in their house stands for Japanese society's awkwardness with foreigners. The play was presented in Seoul as part of a series of plays commemorating the Japan-Korea Friendship Year 2005. Japanese theater critic Eisuke Shichiji wrote, "Over forty years ago, Betsuyaku had shown the fear of the post-war society that failed to take responsibility. Then I understood why Mr. Kiyama chose this piece to present in Korea."

Minoru Betsuyaku is a driving force behind postwar contemporary drama, who pioneered underground theater in Japan. He has been regarded as a leading "playwright as thinker" and social critic since the late '60s, when he won the Kishida Kunio award (equivalent to the American Tony) for "Matchiuri no shojo" and "Akai tori no iru fukei" in 1968. While Yukio Mishima was notorious for identifying with the far right in Japanese politics in the '60s, Betsuyaku was almost as notorious for helping to define the far left. In his early career, Betsuyaku was much inspired by Ionesco and Beckett, to whom he is frequently compared. He is Japan's leading playwright of the Theater of the Absurd.

Betsuyaku's works have been recognized for the brilliant structure of dialogue and unique sense of humor, which boldly criticize modern society. "A Scene With A Red Bird" won the 13th annual Kishida award in 1967, when Betsuyaku was 29 years old. It is one of his early masterpieces, yet it is seldom staged. Betsuyaku's plays deal with man's larger problems--his own being and his relationship to the cosmos. The include "Soshite dare mo inakunatta" ("And Then There Were None"), which uses the plot and the characters of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" but sets the action in the world of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," and executes each "little Indian" for something he does after he dies. Among his other plays that may be accessible to Americans are "The Little Match Girl," based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, and "I'm Not Her," a simple play posing a mating problem that is as likely to arise in Topeka as Tokyo. These have been translated by Robert N. Lawson of Washburn University in Topeka, KS but to-date, no plays by Betsuyaku have been produced in New York.

K. Kiyama (director) is the artistic name of Kiyoshi Kiyama, the Japanese producer who, as an enthusiastic fan of Betsuyaku, has produced his plays numerous times. Kiyama made his directing debut with the masterpiece "A Scene With A Red Bird" in March, 2004 under the name "K. Kiyama," receiving highly favorable reviews for productions in Tokyo and Seoul, Korea (December `05). This September, the production will have a four-week run at Shin-Kokuritsu Theater, Tokyo.

Kiyama Theatre Productions was founded in 1980, by Kiyoshi Kiyama and notable Japanese theater personages including Minoru Betsuyaku, Masakazu Yamazaki, Toshifumi Sueki and Noburo Nakamura. Its award-winning productions have toured internationally, including "Kanadehon Hamlet" by Harue Tsutsumi, a backstage comedy in which a 19th century kabuki troupe's attempt to stage Shakespeare becomes a director's nightmare (New York-La MaMa, 1997; London and Moscow); "Gen" by Keiji Nakazawa, an autobiographical musical built around the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, (1999 New York-Kaye Playhouse, Seoul, and Poland) and "Sentaku" by Harue Tsutsumi, based on the trial of a third-generation, Japan-born Korean pianist who refused to be fingerprinted at the airport and was not allowed to enter Japan (2005, Kinpo and Seoul, both in Korea. Performed in Japan as "Saishu mokutekichi ha nippon"). The company's mission is to protect the quality of traditional Japanese theater, and to search for the new realism in modern theater. Its main repertoire is works by Japan's legendary playwrights, but includes some works include plays by Shakespeare and Checkhov and some modern plays and musicals.

The company's reviews in New York to-date have been most flattering, but the short runs have left the reviewers cryin' for more. The New York Times (Lawrence Van Gelder), reviewing "Gen" during its "brief but meritorious five-performance run" in 1999, called it an "engrossing, well-acted, touching and horrific plea for peace" which was "powerful and intriguing despite the absence of the production's normal sets, costumes and props, stranded by snow in Chicago." "Kanadehon Hamlet," unvexed by blizzards, had a lush production in La MaMa's Annex Theater two winters before. The Village Voice (Deborah Jowitt) deemed it an "exciting production," praising it as a "full-blooded drama that deals with traditional Kabuki themes of idealism and what corrupts and undermines it, of dishonor and lessons learned." The review praised the acting as splendid and lamented the shortness of the run, five performances. During both previous productions and now, Kiyama Productions' NY tours have been limited due to funding difficulties.

Friday, Oct. 13 at 8:00 PM, Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8:00 PM, Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:00 pm
American Theater of Actors (ATA), 314 West 54 Street (bet.8 & 9 Ave.), NYC
Presented by IPS Productions.
General Admission: $30 Students & Seniors: $20 (ID Required at door)
Purchase tickets before September 30, 2006 for $5 discount.
Box office: SMARTTIX / 212-868-4444 (English) or ticket@ipsnewyork.com / 347-228-4335 (Japanese).
Group Sales: info@ipsnewyork.com / 347-228-4335.
Performed in Japanese with English simultaneous translation by headset.
Running Time: 1 hr 50 min (No Intermission).


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