Western theater seems more and more interested in re-creating everyday reality on a stage. Even our traditional theater pieces have been updated, transferred, and otherwise pushed and pulled to convince audiences that the august playwright in question was really a man of today.
The Japanese have always respected their traditions, and they have kept those traditions authentically alive in several important forms - No, Kabuki, and Bunraku. Reality is intentionally distorted; stylization is the primary focus; expressivity comes from the use of that stylization.
The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of (Osaka,) Japan is winding up a three-city tour of the United States in Boston March 21 and 22. In Bunraku, the intention is not to re-create life - to animate the puppets so realistically that we forget they are puppets. There are no strings in Bunraku; the principal puppets are operated by three puppeteers (two hooded, one in full master's costume) always visible to the audience.
Thus, we are made simultaneously aware of the puppet, of the principal puppeteer making the puppet's head and right arm move, and of his assistants tending to the rest of the puppet. At the same time, we perceive the narrator and the player of the samisen (traditional string instrument made of wood and catskin) - the voice and the music of the puppets - sitting off to the right of the stage on a special platform. This perspective flattens, distorts, transmogrifies the viewer's perceptions.
The program the Bunraku Puppet Theatre is travelling with gives us a smattering of this and that - scenes and arias, as it were, rather than an entire opera. But such scenes! The puppets are generally two-thirds life-size, and one gets quite used to that scale. When Giheiji emerges to wreak carnage in a scene from ''Natsu Matsuri'' (''Summer Festival'') the particularly large size of the puppet (still smaller than life) is especially tangible. And when ''he'' strips to a loincloth for his murderous mayhem, and attacks in fierce, stilted postures and poses, it is something at once heroic, savage, and frightening.
The gem of the evening, a masterpiece of puppetering and a great moment of dramatic theater, is ''Osono's Lament.'' Osono's husband has abandoned her for a young geisha. Osono knows that that very night, the ''new'' couple will commit suicide. As she closes her shop for the evening, she asks herself if she could have done anything to prevent this tragic state of affairs.
Puppeteer Minosuke Yoshida III's exquisite Osono has a particularly poignant face, and three-jointed hands that unfold with a hauntingly delicate line. Mr. Yoshida and his two assistants create poses that emphasize the delicate femininity of the character, as well as fully communicating the fearsome weight of the tragedy that has befallen her. The movements and gestures of the puppet communicate a heart-rending despair, abetted by the narration of Rodayu Toyotake V and the superb samisen playing of Seiji Tsuruzawa.
Mr. Yoshida was also the puppeteer for an old lady who does a dance of penitance for the young man she tortured to death when she, too, was young. This old lady created the roots of her misery. Her peculiar fate is to be reminded that she once was unbearably beautiful and misused her beauty.
The male puppets are amazing for their virility and power, yet the female puppets are the ones that leave a permanent mark on the viewer. The immobile faces seem to take on expressions, and one can almost see tears in the tiny eyes. But such is the power of the different sort of reality Bunraku creates. It makes all the slice-of-life banalities of today's theater all the more meaningless in comparison.