Opinionist: Drum of the Waves of Horikawa

NOVEMBER 4, 2007

It’s become quite fashionable for the “downtown” theater scene to inject their productions with live punk rock stylings. (Though the stated intentions vary, I can’t help but theorize that it’s got something to do with a terminally unhip theater geek’s longing for coolness.) The big problem with most of these wannabe rock shows is twofold: the music invariably sucks and the lyrics – ostensibly important for dramatic purposes – are unintelligible. (Essential Self Defense and The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen are two recent efforts that come to mind.) So it’s a relief that the latest addition to the genre, Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, incorporates a kinetic punk rock score that swings and sizzles. Composed by Brendan Connelly and performed by two drummers, a bassist and the Maestro himself on synthesizers, the quartet provides the propulsive juice for this rollicking yet ultimately unaffecting evening.
     The source material is an 18th century Kabuki melodrama packed with enough adultery, rape and revenge killings to merit a Tarantino homage. Director Brooke O’Harra, who spent some years in Japan, has stated in interviews that she is not trying replicate the centuries-old Japanese tradition: “No one is going to seriously train a Westerner in Kabuki. You are talking about a lifetime of study and practice.” Instead, O’Harra and Connelly aim to isolate some of the more salient attributes of Kabuki and punk performance – the exaggerated facial expressions, the extreme, grotesque physicality – and let them “rub up against one another.” The theatrical spawn of this friction, executed with inventive, rigorous precision by an indefatigable ensemble in a 12’ playing space, is at turns lively, startling, funny and periodically repetitive.
     Oddly, the performance is most repetitious during the first third, mostly due to the slow-starting narrative engine: the beginning lingers too long on the lonely wife of an absent samurai and her adulterous lust for her son’s Jack Blackian drum teacher. With the melodrama slow to build steam, the cast’s repeated spasms and stylized physicality began to wear thin, akin to high-brow footnotes on an insubstantial term paper. But as the action picks up – with farcical sex scenes and panicked bouts of remorse – the ribald substance fills out the stunning stylization.
     Soon enough the cuckolded samurai returns, the betrayal comes to light, and the wheels of bloody vengeance are set in colorful motion. The cast is uniformly excellent, throwing themselves completely into O’Harra’s elaborately choreographed staging with a physicality that, for all its precision, still exudes an exhilarating air of recklessness. O’Harra also does well to space out the two hour production into five episodes, with several DJ-enhanced breaks for cheap beer, sake and cigarettes. This casual party atmosphere sets just the right tone for the Kabuki/Punk rubdown; while it never achieves (or intends to achieve) any emotional resonance, this imaginative mash-up is ample proof that super-ultra nerds really can rock after all.