"... the production has striking visual appeal"
- Ron Cohen, Backstage
"It is breathtakingly exquisite"
- Kat Chamberlain, nythreatre.com
"After the Rain" by Yara Arts Group is an original theatre piece based on short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s best short story writer and most profound novelist of the Taisho period. During his short life (1892-1927, he committed suicide at the age of 35) Akutagawa wrote more than 150 short stories. His story “Rashomon” was the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s renowned film in 1950. “After the Rain” will be created, directed and designed by Watoku Ueno as a theatrical collage of Akutagawa’s short stories. It features original Japanese costumes, and folk songs as well as contemporary live music and projection images, dance and shadow puppets.
Production is interdisciplinary. Scenes are created through the interaction between actors and shadow puppets and include contemporary music and movement. Three stories by Akutagawa form the core of the production: “Rashomon,” “Magic,” and “Mandarins”. Although these stories take place in various times, places and contexts, the production weaves them into one man’s somewhat surrealistic journey, starting at Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate during a famine 800years ago. Against his own moral believes, a young unemployed Samurai is forced to become a robber. The second story “Magic,” is set in the Taisho period (1912-1926). A man visits a magician to learn his craft to find out it can that only be used if no greed is involved. The last part is based on the story “Mandarin,” that takes place inside a train compartment. An old man, perhaps the same person as in the previous stories, is saved by a young country girl, who selflessly throws mandarins to boys waving to the train.
Director Watoku Ueno has assembled the script, as well as designed the set, lights and the shadow puppets. A founding member of Yara Arts Group, he has co-directed and designed most of Yara’s 18 productions and in 2006 directed Yara’s “Sundown.” He is an NEA/TCG award-winning designer. He is interested in exploring East-meets-West themes, both personally and as an artist. He is also fascinated by the Taisho period of Japanese history, when culture and revolution flowered together.
Founded in 1990, Yara Arts Group, a resident company of La MaMa, creates original pieces that explore timely issues rooted in the East through the diverse cultural perspectives of the group's members. Yara artists are of Asian, African, Eastern and Western European ethnic origin. They bring together poetry, song, historical materials and scientific texts, primarily from the East, to form what one critic described as "extended meditation on an idea." The company has created eight pieces based on materials from Eastern Europe including: "A Light from the East," "Blind Sight," "Yara's Forest Song," and "Swan." The New York Times (D.J.R. Bruckner) called one of these pieces, “Waterfall/Reflections” developed with folk singer Nina Matvienko, "a theatrical enchantment given cohesion by choreographed movement and by music on a prodigal scale." Since 1996 Yara has also created seven theater pieces with Buryat artists from Siberia. The Village Voice (Eva Yaa Asantewaa) called "Circle" as a World Music-Theater work with artists from the Buryat Republic at La MaMa in the spring of 2000, "a stunningly beautiful work (that) rushes at your senses, makes your heart pound, and shakes your feelings loose." Yara has also created theatre pieces on Japanese material and last year created the first Kyrgyz-American collaborative project, “Janyl,” about a woman warrior from the Celestial Mountains.
"After the Rain" is made possible, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department for Cultural Affairs. For more information check Yara's web site at www.brama.com/yara
by Ron Cohen
Read it online here
Yara Arts Group, an 18-year-old company whose mission is to create pieces rooted in Eastern culture, conjures up some 75 minutes of dreamlike theatre in After the Rain.
The piece is inspired by the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a noted Japanese writer who committed suicide in 1927 at age 35. Developed by the company during rehearsals under the aegis of director and designer Watoku Ueno, the show comprises three tales with strong moral overtones. The first sequence takes place centuries ago at Kyoto's Rashomon gate, when famine forces a samurai to betray his principles and rob an old woman who herself is stealing the hair of the dead. (Akutagawa's story is the basis for the famed Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.) In the second sequence, an apprentice magician is denied knowledge of a higher art of magic because he cannot meet the requirement to restrain his greed. And in the third, the bitter mood of an old man traveling on a train is lifted by an act of generosity from a fellow passenger, a poor country girl.
The stories, at least as presented here, are ephemeral and lack narrative heft, but the production has striking visual appeal and manages to work up a reasonable amount of emotional resonance. The storytelling incorporates lots of stylized movement, shadow puppetry, and pleasantly fragile songs, along with text from Akutagawa and convincing performances by the four actors in multiple roles.
Rex Marin admirably endows each of the three central characters -- the samurai, the apprentice, and the old traveler -- with distinct personalities, while Hana A. Kalinski, Stephanie Silver, and Kazue Tani provide strong ensemble work. The musical underscoring and accompaniment by composer-guitarist Kato Hideki add dramatic emphasis, as do Ueno's honeycomb-like stage platform design and his moody lighting.
While After the Rain may never quite grab you, it's a show whose artistic aspirations are palpable and valid.
by Kat Chamberlain
Read it online
Watching After the Rain, a new multimedia show based on three short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of the best-known Japanese writers of the last century, is a surreal experience. It is as if two entirely different performances are being woven together intermittently, and I found myself favoring one decidedly over the other.
Creator Watoku Ueno and the Yara Arts Group have put tremendous thought into the aesthetics of the piece. It opens beautifully, with one of the most original and intriguing set designs I have ever seen. It serves up one surprise after another, from exotic costumes to intricate movements. A combination of music, shadow puppets, projections, and dance, it feels like a theatre version of an art house silent film. And I loved that show. But then there is another show, in which the profound and penetrating stories are reduced to a few flat lines and exaggerated enactments—and this so distracts and detracts from the former, that the whole feels inevitably less than the sum of its parts.
From the moment the audience walks into the theatre, the focus is on the stage: the floor is an open grid, with beams wide enough for actors to walk on, and openings big enough for them to fall or jump in. A musician in traditional Japanese attire appears on the balcony, and with a simple guitar fills the theatre with mystery and allure. When the lights come up, three women start moving on the grid with delicate, gliding footwork. Two of them hold white paper umbrellas. "Rain. Hard rain breaks my heart," they sing.
It's the story of "Rashomon." We see on the rice-paper screen backdrop a shadow puppet of a man climbing up a ladder. A real man emerges from under the grid onto the stage. He is a samurai fallen on hard times, taking shelter from the rain in the ruins of the Rashomon Gate. He witnesses an old woman pulling hair out of a corpse to sell as wigs. He is first outraged, then decides to follow her example and robs her of her clothes.
For those who have not read the original story, the action may speak for itself. But the dramatization of the story is so simplistic it offers scant exploration of this man's inner struggle. He becomes the carbon copy of the old woman, and makes no revelation of any human need beyond basic survival. "I have so little choice," is the only line offered by the script to explain his action, and it's lamentably inadequate.
With no apparent connection, the show moves to the second story, "Magic," in which a man learns a great craft of magic, with the condition that it never be used for greed. He violates the agreement and suffers violent death. The shadow puppetry again outshines the real actors, as objects appear, move, transform, and disappear with a great deal of ingenuity and fanfare. The tone turns from the grimness of the first segment into tongue-in-cheek glee. This prop extravaganza would have been great for kids, if not for its heavy-handed, strenuous message. The blunt depiction of the story ironically defies Akutagawa's characteristic moral ambiguity.
The third story, "Mandarin," is about an old man's impressions of a simple act by a country girl, who throws mandarins out of the window of her train to her brothers. The physical rendition of the story is affecting, especially the movement of the train and the action by the girl. The narration, however, with four actors each assigned a few lines and speaking in the first person, comes across as disjointed or even baffling. The translation of the text is also problematic: the overly plain and short English version, as if further simplified for children, loses the original's descriptive flavor and emotional depth. Furthermore, the actors often seem to merely "recite" the text and perform in a pronouncedly dramatic style that is more for a demonstration or show-and-tell. Oftentimes one actor tells, and the other shows, with a few seconds delay. I can see how this device may work for a satire or comedy, but sadly not exactly for this meditative piece.
One thing that absolutely works throughout is the music by the composer/guitarist/sound designer Kato Hideki. It seamlessly merges with the striking visuals and accentuates the poignancy of the stories. I could listen to him forever. Luba Kierkosz's costume design is stylish and refined, serving the physical movements to perfection.
After the Rain is written, designed, and directed by Watoku Ueno, and according to the program note, the scenes were created by the artists of Yara in rehearsal. Hats off to the artistry he and his company have put into the entire look of the show. It is breathtakingly exquisite. It is also a worthy attempt to wed literature to theatre, and the traditional Japanese art of shadow puppet, costumes, and music to modern dance and multimedia. Although the classic stories by a true master need more dramatization to deliver their emotional punch, the open-hearted sincerity of the piece never slackens, and neither does its spirit of innovation. There are two shows here, and one of them works like a dream.