nytheatre.com review by Lois Spangler
September 14, 2007
Trying to explain Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi is like trying to explain a falling leaf, or the sunlight spilling through clouds. From a technical standpoint, dogugaeshi means, more or less, "tool" or "method of exchange." It describes the screens, each set behind the other, that are drawn to the side, or lifted, or folded away to reveal the screen beyond, as a way of changing scenes or settings in this traditional style of Japanese puppet theater. The screens are intricately painted, and some are drawn with perspective, to give a sense of great depth. There's no magic to the process itself; it's a simple idea, though sometimes complex in execution. But in that simplicity is where the beauty and magic arises.
Twist's Dogugaeshi revolves entirely around these changes, these shifts, these revelations. It is a study in space, location, and time, and how we experience each, and at the same time is a subtle examination of traditional society in contrast with modern society. One puppet, a beautiful white fox whose multiple tails mark him as a kitsune, a fox spirit of Japanese folklore, is the sole self-aware inhabitant of this ever-changing landscape. At times he's taking you on a tour, showing you around; other times, he's inviting you to his home, a beautiful palatial room that stretches on nearly forever in a succession of smaller and smaller screens. He often shows up in candlelight, which only serves to lift the scenes even further out of the everyday and places them in a realm of dreams, myths, and imagination.
Supporting this feeling of transformed space is the use of projections; for something as traditionally bound as this piece, I worried that these digital projections might be intrusive, but they're subtle and serve only to enhance the feeling of being in different times and places. In addition to projection, music is used to supreme effect, culminating in the live performance of Yumiko Tanaka, who is dressed in traditional garb and sits alongside the performance frame (it's not quite a stage). She not only plays shamisen and koto, but she also sings traditional Japanese music, both solo and in accompaniment with the recorded music she created for this work. It isn't often anyone in the U.S. gets to see a musical performance like that, and in my opinion, I got two incredible shows in one sitting.
The piece moves like a dream—its components aren't directly connected to one another in a real narrative sense, but everything feels right, one scene, one theme, one movement follows another. In a broader sense, there is a feeling of examining the past, the present, and then the past again—or is it the future? The only moment that pulled me from that dreamlike feeling was a brief foray to the island of Awaji—the home of the dogugaeshi tradition—in a short documentary video segment, where elderly women recount to Twist the wonder they felt at watching those puppet shows so long ago, by the light of candles. And because of what the women had to say, and how they said it—I didn't resent the break at all.
I can't say it more succinctly: go see the show. Just go. The art of dogugaeshi is a fading tradition that the Japanese government is staunchly working to preserve. You will not get an opportunity to see anything else like this outside of Japan, and likely not even outside of Tokushima prefecture. The respect, care, admiration, and affection Twist shows for the tradition, and for the exploration of time, history, tradition, and modernity, is precisely the kind of work that deserves support, and deserves to be seen. Go.