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Eye-opening `Medea' from Japan

The evening begins with the stately chiming of a Japanese gong. But just as you settle into its exotic mood, an unseen hand starts strumming a guitar, and a folksy voice -- with more than a hint of Tom Waits's gravelly sound -- launches into a folksy Japanese song. Between the gong and the guitar, it's hard to tell whether this production takes place in ancient or modern times. But the setting is Japanese, for sure -- which might seem straightforward, except that the show being staged is ``Medea'' by Euripides, one of the most renowned of ancient Greek tragedies.

Such cultural crosshatching is eagerly embraced by the Toho Company, an adventurous Japanese troupe that enjoys blurring the boundaries between traditional notions of ancient and modern, classical and experimental, and even Eastern and Western theater.

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Its radical reworking of ``Medea,'' a touring production that was recently performed in Japanese at the Delacorte Theater here, was an eye-opening show that demonstrated not only the imagination of the Toho Company but, by extension, the international appeal of the kind of visually oriented theater that has been championed by American stage artists Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk, among others.

In staging ``Medea,'' with its harrowing story of a woman's bloody revenge on her faithless husband, director Yukio Ninigawa has managed a clever blending of traditional Western and innovative Eastern ideas.

He has followed the usual Greek-tragedy rules by setting the action in front of a temple, for example, but gives the temple a distinctly Japanese appearance that stresses the universality of Medea's tragic story.

Similarly, he has retained the convention of a chorus, but uses it to generate emotion through sheer spectacle -- with a horde of hooded figures snaking across the stage, often plucking ferociously at banjolike samisens -- as well as to comment verbally on the main action.

Ninigawa has drawn heavily on common Japanese practices, including such Kabuki conventions as an all-male cast and elaborate costuming. (Medea's outfit was said to weigh 44 pounds.) And the diction of the performance rings with hearty Japanese emoting, as opposed to the realism of most Western acting and the oratorical style of ancient Greek performance.

Yet this ``Medea'' smacks no more of Japan than of Broadway, by any traditional standard. From the spotlights that roam the empty stage at the beginning to the bravura finale -- with Medea draped in blood-red, screeching her last words atop an enormous crane -- the Toho Company has succeeded in turning mystery and enigma into a universally accessible stage vocabulary.

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