Theatre Reviews
Mischief and Mayhem: Japanese Kyŏgen Farce

The Japanese Studies program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, brought a lovely evening to the Lee Theater at the Touhill. All the way from Oregon, this small group from Portland State University came to show us several charming little pieces of Kyŏgen farce – an ancient form of Japanese drama.  From medieval Japan (as early as the 1300s) this genre pokes gentle fun at the rigidly hierarchal society of its time.  The name “kyŏgen” translates roughly as “crazy words.”

Kyŏgen plays were traditionally performed as comic entr’actes between Noh plays.

Noh was an austere, ritualized form associated with the temple and the Shogunate court. These little Kyŏgen treats served as amuse-bouches to the following Noh entrées. 

Despite their distinctively Japanese stylization the playlets are immediately familiar and find a quite comfortable place in our hearts. They are folk tales, children’s tales. Every culture has such entertainments – showing clever servants outwitting their masters, pomposity deflated, perseverance rewarded. There are subtle resonances of the Brothers Grimm, of Commedia, of Punch-and-Judy.  

Under the direction of Prof. Laurence Kominz the Oregon troupe consists of Jeremy Maly, Laura Dooly, Katt Lemmon, Abby Naumann, Rei Barnes and Alexie Logan. Prof. Kominz also acts in a couple roles.

Four brief pieces are enacted. At the side of the stage, flip-chart style, are the titles of the scenes – in beautiful Japanese caligraphy. They are turned by a Stage Assistant. 

The playlets are:  

“The Mountain Wizard and the Crab”:  A wizard and his porter are returning home. At a bog they encounter the Crab Spirit – ornately costumed and masked and beautifully embodying all the attributes of a crab. The spirit captures the porter’s ear in his pincers. The Wizard attempts to defeat the crab by chanting silly mumbo-jumbo, but soon his ear is also seized by the Crab Spirit. The spirit is chased off-stage. THE END.

“Tied to a Pole”:  A master must go away for a day, but his two servants have the habit of drinking his sake when he is away. To prevent this he ties them up: one with arms outstretched along a pole, the other with hands tied behind her back. The servants, of course, (after various comic attempts) figure out how to help each other to as much sake as they can drink. Master returns, chases the servants off stage. THE END  

“Kyoto Children” (a dance): A charmingly sung and danced portrayal of children at play.

“The Thunder God”: A doctor leaving town is caught in a great thunder-storm. The Thunder God falls through a hole between clouds and lands on the earth. This god is, again, gorgeously costumed and masked – and very full of his thundering self. He demands that the doctor cure his injured hip. The “cure” is acupuncture at its painful worst. The pompous god is humiliated. THE END.

Quite beautiful and very disciplined work is done by all members of the troupe. The crisply stylized movement – and the careful, curious vocal style are so distinctive.  Costuming is minutely authentic. It was a delightful, endearing introduction to this ancient Japanese theater genre.

Just a comment pertaining to my own bête noire – curtain speeches. The greeter on the Lee stage waxed lengthily telling us that we were in the Des Lee Theater (which we knew), that we were in the Touhill Center (which we knew) that she was glad to see us (which we could assume) and that we were going to see some Kyŏgen plays which we fully expected)—before she introduced Prof. Kominz.  Prof. Kominz himself waxed professorially about the history of Kyŏgen and about their project.  (Interesting, but still a little too long.) 

But when we got to the meat of the evening it was charming indeed. Mischief and Mayhem played at the Touhill Center on September 15.