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Ng Yi-Sheng






Victoria Theatre




TheatreWorks appears to be heading in a new and productive direction lately. With its emphasis on solo performance and a determined focus on a single cultural institution, Geisha comes off as the most thoughtful and poignant work of intercultural theatre piece I've seen from the company - and, mark you, I've been watching their progress since the days of their first forays into combining traditional and contemporary performing arts with the launch of the Flying Circus Project and Lear.

The Flying Circus Project, TheatreWorks' continuing research and development project exploring Asian collaboration, places an incredible amount of faith in the democratic spirit. It proposes that different global performance traditions can encounter and influence each other without canceling each other out. The productions that spring from this approach look great onstage - hence the oohs and ahs as kudiyattum artists and kagok singers share the stage in Desdemona, or Liyuan opera divas chastise khon dancers in The Global Soul. But the reality is that it's very difficult for the preserver of a classical tradition to allow herself to be influenced. Moreover, there's a disturbing power differential that occurs when contemporary arts practitioners serve as cultural interpreters. In Sandakan Threnody, Singaporean and Australian performance artists pretty much cut the turf away from the feet of kabuki performer Gojo Masanosuke, dominating the conversation with their more lively action. This runs against every Confucian grain in my body - how dare we, as artists of an anything-goes age, steal the spotlight from a veteran who has honed his craft for decades in a rigidly structured classical discipline?

Geisha solves both these problems by downsizing itself to a total of three performers - Masanosuke-san again, dancing classical female roles, Karen Kandel from New York as our English-speaking cultural go-between, and the shamisen player and miyo-singer Kineya Katsumatsu. All three of these artistes thus get an ample share of solo time, showcased against the white cube of a minimalist set. The brain is thus forced to shift from the critical/conceptual context of contemporary theatre to an antique one, where emotion and beauty are strictly ritualised.

Furthermore, the play's specific focus on the geisha allows for an in-depth, investigative study of this role, especially its place in the modern world. The text of the play comes not only from the folk songs that Katsumatsu intones, but from a patchwork of ethnographic transcripts from maikos (apprentice geishas), retired geishas, patrons, wives of patrons, wig- and kimono-makers and teahouse owners - but, notably, never the geisha themselves. When the geisha's voice is presented, it is only through imaginative filters - in reported speech, in monologues from films or bunraku dramas about geisha. None of the three performers - two Japanese men and an African-American woman - own the definitive body of the Asian woman upon which the image of the geisha is ideally mapped. The identity of the geisha is thus constantly deferred, defined as a white void in the middle of a carefully drawn border that describes her social environment, the eye at the centre of the storm.

It's a crucial stroke that there's this central silence about the geisha within a play that purports to describe them. The world has lately had geishamania, what with Zhang Ziyi doing ethnic drag in Memoirs and all of us making jokes about going to okiyas to bid for each other's mizuages. The image of the geisha, the height of the Asian exotic, becomes pure kitsch, especially absurd to we who live in an urban Asia where her aesthetic is completely foreign. We dismiss the geisha as ridiculous, assuming that we know what she is. By hiding the voices of the woman herself, Geisha denies us the authority to say we know who she is.

It's also essential here that Kandel does not hide her own cultural background when performing her roles - she lengthens the vowels in Japanese words as only an American will, even putting on a ghetto accent when playing a pimp who agrees to sell a geisha's "mee-zoo-ah-gay", because even though prostitution is illegal and her hymen is long gone, in the end, all they're really selling is dreams. One never loses sight of her role as performer - an especially jarring experience when she plays the parts of maikos, but crucial to her later roles playing people definitively outside the geisha community, including a loud Western man who jokes that he'd trust these girls with his life, but also, intriguingly, two Japanese women. In a bleached Afro wig and a khaki house dress, Kandel played both a housewife struggling to accept her husband's patronage of geishas and the legendary "maniac maiko", who danced on tables during her training and set up a geisha-style bar in Germany upon her expulsion, making good business doing slipshod versions of the formal geisha dances. Both roles served to illustrate how Japanese women themselves find geisha profoundly anachronistic. Gender and race alone do not a geisha make: her identity is almost universally foreign.

Certainly, with its mix of traditional dance and anthropologists' notes, Geisha tended to maintain a certain emotional distance from the audience, even when characters expressed their sorrow at the fading away of their heritage. Yet this was still far more productive than the superficial spread of responses to Japanese mistreatment of POWs in Sandakan Threnody - we felt immersed and invested in a particular issue that is relevant to people living in our time with lives not so different from our own.

At the show's end, by simply playing the sound of stamping feet, the audience was prompted to remember an earlier line from the play. This described how the stamping in geisha dance recalls the days before instrumentation, when performers had to make their own music. The realisation of this motif - forgotten music, preserved by echoes - created a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, the like of which I've never experienced before at a Flying Circus production. It is that which was the proof of the play's power: its ability to truly touch me.

In terms of the play's shortcomings, I'm not entirely comfortable with how Kandel was costumed in a succession of bizarre garments and wigs for her different scenes. Certainly, her magnificent white dress at the opening, which covered the floor, was a self-justifying spectacle, but later scraps and pieces seemed to have been salvaged from a Harajuku remainders bin. One multiple-piece kimono costume even included a turban - perhaps to build a sad pastiche of Masanosuke's own graceful succession of dresses, but more, I felt, to be strange for the sake of strangeness.

But Geisha is saved by its strong focus. The sensory overload of previous multidisciplinary pieces tended to turn them into hybrids of the academic essay and the variety show. I'm hoping that Ong hasn't abandoned his hopes of reconciling disparate Asian traditions, though - there is surely something to be learned from marrying different cultures from outside the mainstream, before they too become forgotten musics.

But in the meantime, one can say with conviction that the simpler strategy of Geisha is effective. Poised between past and present, with almost equal weight distributed amongst its performers, and above all, intimately concerned with its subject matter, the play emerges as a work that is balanced, beautiful and moving.

"Intimately concerned with its subject matter, the play emerges as a work that is balanced, beautiful and moving"


Director: Ong Keng Sen

Composer: Toru Yamanaka

Text: Robin Loon

Stage Manager: Kathryn Hindley

Producer: Tay Tong

Costume Design: Mistushi Yanaihara

Lighting Design Scott Zielinski

Technical Manager: Jim Larkin

Translator: Sumida Michiyo

Production Coordinator: Nora Lim

Collaborator-Performers: Karen Kandel, Gojo Masanosuke, and Kineya Katsumatsu

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Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.