The Doll Sisters
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
October 24, 2008
The Doll Sisters (Ningyo Shimai), now playing at the Annex Theatre at La MaMa, begins on a rainy day and tells two stories that center around two sisters. The sisters are never named. They are referred to only as Older Sister and Younger Sister. The story opens with the two sisters sitting in front of an antique chest filled with burning coal, thinking of different men for different reasons.
Younger Sister, the shyer of the two and garbed in a less traditional Japanese dress, waits for a man she once danced with, an experience which she has never forgotten. Older Sister, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono, longs for a man who once rejected her. She awaits his return as well. But her longing, silently smoldering through age and experience, comes from the torch she still carries for him and from the revenge she seeks for his rejection.
After much discussion between the two, a man finally arrives, a samurai. He is dressed in black. He is accompanied by another woman who is dressed in a kimono. They are both marionettes.
The samurai and his companion re-enact and reinterpret a classical kabuki drama called Modorisbashi, which is itself a reinterpretation of a thousand-year-old myth. In it, a samurai meets a beautiful woman and he escorts her across a bridge. The samurai, looking down at their reflections in the water, discovers that the woman is actually a demon (or the Devil himself; interpretations vary). They fight—on the ground, in the air—and the battle ends when the samurai cuts off the woman's arm.
The Doll Sisters weaves the stories of the sisters, the samurai, and the demon by playing with and subverting conventional forms of Japanese theatre. The sisters not only interact with the marionettes but with the puppeteers manipulating them. A man dressed in black—a human being, not a marionette—who would normally facilitate the action between actors and marionettes, is drawn into the drama, functioning as a mediator and a possible suitor.
Director Setsu Asakura stages the action simply, cleanly. The actors work remarkably well with the material. The lighting and set designs create dynamic and well-lit spaces for the actors to play and the action to unfold easily. It's a remarkably good looking and compelling production. But one problem with the production, and it comes close to being a major one, is that it is performed entirely in Japanese, without supertitles. This wouldn't normally be an obstacle but for the fact that the first 20 minutes or so of The Doll Sisters is light on action and heavy on exposition. The exchanges between the sisters, the marionettes, the puppeteers, and intermediary are long and they are stationary. The staging gives very little indication of the nuance or content of the characters and action. The stillness comes as a surprise given the stylization of its influences, but as a person who doesn't speak Japanese, there were long stretches during which I had a difficult time following the stories.
The last third of the show make translations unimportant as dialogue becomes less important than the dynamic staging. The Doll Sisters, which returns to La MaMa 20 years after its debut, closes on a note which reveals the extraordinary nature of the sisters relationship. While it's difficult to put the pieces of the show together without knowing the content of the dialogue, some simple research on La MaMa's website, a quick perusal through this summation, and the production's program should make for an enjoyable experience.