Musicians Multitask in a Narrative Sleight of Hand

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The New York Sun

The Lincoln Center Festival wound down this weekend as two Festival veterans unleashed interdisciplinary free-for-alls. “Eraritjaritjaka” and “Geisha” each subjected a specific topic — the writings of the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti and the life of the geisha, respectively — to a prismatic, visually beguiling approach, complete with superb live musicians and charismatic ringleaders. Both meandered from time to time, and spectacle occasionally trumped structure in each. But they both also poked and pleased in equal measure, offering a ravishing visual or delectable stage trick for every dip into obscurity.

In the willfully polyglot “Eraritjaritjaka,” director Heiner Goebbels assembled an Alsatian actor (André Wilms) and a Danish string quartet (the Mondriaan) to give voice to a Bulgarian-born author who wrote in German (although the text was performed here in French), and a smorgasbord of composers, from Ravel to George Crumb.As if this wasn’t dense enough, he also added a bit of narrative sleight of hand that transformed the Rose Theater into a hall of mirrors, one that Canetti might have relished.

Canetti’s multilayered writing doubled back onto several key themes, chiefly the inevitable (as he saw it) power skirmishes between all humans. “Secrecy lies at the very core of power,” Canetti wrote, and by that standard, the cagey Mr. Goebbels is a powerful guy. What he did with those secrets — including a few that remained undisclosed — was sometimes facile, always eye-opening, and occasionally marvelous.

A large chunk of “Eraritjaritjaka” — the unfortunate title comes from an aboriginal phrase — is devoted to Canetti’s analysis of the orchestral conductor and the role he plays in both maintaining and creating the world of the music.”The movement of his music, which his hands bring about, represents the path his feet would be the first to tread,”Canetti wrote. “The crowd in the hall is carried forward by him.”

String quartets, of course, require no conductor, but Mr. Goebbels toyed with Mr. Wilms’s role vis-a-vis the Mondriaan, which began the play with a conventional (and beautifully performed) rendition of Shostakovich. Sometimes leading the group, sometimes being led by it, and sometimes oblivious to their wildly eclectic utterances, the sure-footed Mr. Wilms lent his debonair certitude to Canetti’s philosophical nuggets: “Everyone ought to watch himself eating.”

But Mr. Goebbels’s boldest decision was to sever the bond between Mr. Wilms and the musicians in a seemingly irrevocable manner. Halfway through the play, the nattily dressed narrator put on his hat and strode right out of the theater. Le Philosophe has left the building!

Mr. Wilms jumped in a car, ran a quick errand, and went home, filmmaker Bruno Deville in tow. (The action unspooled onto a huge house-shaped screen in what appeared to be real time.) The Mondriaan then provided a very dramatic soundtrack to what looked like a very undramatic life — Mr. Wilms opened the mail, whipped up a light supper, and watched a little CNN. Yoked to these banal actions, the quartet’s fiery playing took on a surreal new dimension.

The logistics of this trek proved delightfully complicated: When Mr. Wilms quoted a Canetti phrase,”A hair, literally a hair, lying where it shouldn’t, can separate order from disorder,” one got the impression that Messrs. Goebbels and Deville had learned this the hard way during rehearsals.

Ultimately, however, the “how” proved more impressive than the “why.”In a nod to Canetti’s novel “Auto-da-Fé,” a child stopped by to chat with Mr. Wilms about the Chinese alphabet. A spectral, possibly imagined, lover surfaced in the attic. These actions, presumably intended to deepen the play’s sense of mystery, had the opposite effect. When someone manages to untether himself from the confines of the stage and uses his newfound freedom to make an omelet, it’s funny and somehow right. But when he then engages in the sort of trite, faux-mystic interactions common to movie dream sequences, it’s obvious and frustrating.

Thankfully, the mischievous Mr. Goebbels concluded “Eraritjaritjaka” with the appropriate amount of theatrical verve, uniting the audience, the exemplary musicians, and his milquetoast narrator in that large houseshaped structure. He served as the conductor, after all, not Mr. Wilms. And without realizing it, we had followed his winding, genre-demolishing path right back to where we started. The trip was an odd and oddly satisfying one.


As it happened, the Festival’s piece about a far more exotic topic — the life of the geisha — took a less exotic route. In assembling “Geisha,” the Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen colored within the lines fairly diligently. But what colors they were!

Mitsushi Yanaihara, whose sumptuous costume designs would put most couture houses to shame, was the real star of this jumbled but frequently captivating gloss on geisha life. Mr. Yanaihara’s riotously patterned, seemingly discordant blocks of fabric, which stacked on top of one another with surprising harmony, immensely aided the two skilled performers, Gojo Masanosuke (a Japanese man performing female roles) and Karen Kandel (a longtime fixture of American experimental theater).

But that harmony was not always found among the play’s other elements. The 12 scenes of “Geisha,” it seemed, could have been performed in any sequence with no adverse effect. But nearly every one of those scenes contained something, whether Mr. Masanosuke’s haunting evocation of the geisha’s highly ritualized dances or a propulsive surge of East-meets-West electronica by the composer/DJ Toru Yamanaka, in which to delight.

While Ms. Kandel and Mr. Masanosuke frequently performed together, Mr. Ong alternated between the electronic score and live music from Kineya Katsumatsu, who sang in an unearthly tenor and accompanied himself on shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese guitar. At one point, Mr. Katsumatsu performed a riveting solo that sounded like a Mississippi bluesman stumbling onto the pentatonic scale and falling in love.

Mr. Ong and his librettist, Robin Loon, more clearly conveyed what geishas were not (i.e.,prostitutes),than what they were: “There’s no sex, you understand,”one customer said,”just a whole lot of TLC. “The consistently insightful Ms. Kandel, who embodied with equal skill everyone from the geisha’s Yankee customers to the kimono maker who hands the mama-san his monthly invoice to a pair of stereotypical geishas from an old Kenji Mizoguchi film, provided much of the evening’s dramatic backbone. (As a sign that no good deeds go unpunished, the program listed Ms. Kandel’s character as “Dreamweaver,” a name only marginally less pretentious than “Eraritjaritjaka.”)

Did these vignettes add up to a coherent, dramatically satisfying picture of life upon the wicked tea house stage? Not really. But the sight of a black woman and a man appropriating this archetype of Japanese femininity proved strangely invigorating, and Mr. Ong certainly knows how to paint a stage picture. On at least one crucial score,”Geisha” had one thing in common with the entrancing, exhaustively trained conversationalists that it honored: It was never boring.

The New York Sun

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