Thousand Years Waiting
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 23, 2006
Thousand Years Waiting, a collaboration by theatre artists Chiori Miyagawa, Sonoko Kawahara, Masaya Kiritake, and Bruce Odland, is a work of singular beauty and inspiration. I've never seen anything quite like it, at least in part for the very good reason that Kiritake is one of the world's only practitioners of the art of Otame Bunraku. That she shares her extraordinary talent with New Yorkers here is just one of the many great gifts of this production.
Thousand Years Waiting takes place in New York today and in Kyoto in the year 1000. Fans of Miyagawa's work, which seamlessly blends eastern and western theatre structures and historical and contemporary archetypes, will not be surprised; all others should find themselves mesmerized by the ease with which the play moves back and forth through time and space to tell the story of women waiting. In the present day, a young woman has moved to New York full of hope and expectation, but she finds unexpected resonance in an ancient Japanese book, the Sarashina Diary, written a thousand years before—"from memory," we are startlingly informed. The diarist, similarly, is enraptured by The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel according to a program note, a medieval Japanese bodice-ripper about a dashing prince and his conquests, all women, all in love with the idea of being loved by a prince, all waiting for him to come, or to come back. All of the characters in Miyagawa's play, diary-within-a-play, and novel-within-a-diary-within-a-play have just such a wish in common.
And that's pretty much all there is to Thousand Years Waiting in terms of story. What the show is really about is the ways these women experience their lives, and how they share their experiences through different kinds of storytelling. Miyagawa gives us poetry, journal entries, first-hand anecdotes and reminiscences; she mixes them up stylistically and contextually (even lifts at least one very familiar example from William Shakespeare). Kawahara, director of Thousand Years Waiting, gives us surprising stage pictures that evoke the long ago and the right now, often at the same time; precisely choreographed movements of actors and the spare, delicate scenic pieces designed by Donyale Werle define where and when the characters are in their interwoven lifelines at each given moment.
Kiritake gives us three ineffably beautiful moments that interpret and enlarge the emptiness that the other characters find they all too often feel. Otame Bunraku is a rare variety of the Japanese puppet theatre tradition in which a single actress animates a single doll, in this case a breathtakingly lovely creation by Kinta Ban. Kiritake's work here is astonishing and revelatory: detailed, delicate choreographed movements of her own body and the doll's. Whenever she was on stage I found I couldn't take my eyes from her. Her presence, her energy, her grace are sublimely compelling, stunningly theatrical. I hope I've already suggested here many reasons to see Thousands Year Waiting, but the rare chance to see an artist as practiced and dedicated in her art as Kiritake is certainly an important one. The sequence in which the Bunraku doll performs a fan dance is unforgettable, not only for its intrinsic beauty, but for the depth and quality of Kiritake's acting.
Kawahara has melded the Bunraku performance savvily with the rest of the play, as indeed she has brought together a unified vision of all of the work's theatrical elements, including Rie Ono's lighting, Odland's gorgeous music, and Theresa Squire's costumes, which playfully bridge ancient Japan and contemporary America.
In the end, we come to understand the waiting, and the immeasurable comfort that comes from seeing oneself in stories, and ways of telling stories, hundreds of years old. With the deeply-felt resonance of these tales and the spare, fleeting beauty of the telling comes something very like catharsis, an experience only slightly less rare in contemporary theatre than the Otame Bunraku work at the center of this remarkable new play.