Making Waves: Kubuki meets punk rock at Perishable

April 25, 2007

There may be nothing new under the sun, but the permutations sure can surprise and delight in our postmodern age of appropriation. A hair-raising, head-banging punk-theater adaptation of an 18th-century Kabuki play, Drum of the Waves of Horikawa, is getting its premiere at Perishable Theatre (through April 29), created and co-produced by the Theatre of a Two-headed Calf.
     Billed as “an historical tragedy comedy thriller in 5 episodes,” the two-night production follows a story of samurai revenge written in 1705 by Monzaemon Chikamatsu. Appropriate to the tale’s tabloid sensibility, a manga comic book version is being made available concurrently.      Since Kabuki broke with the sedate tradition of Noh drama, becoming the adventurous avant-garde theater of its day, the New York experimental troupe is staging it in raucous style, with two drum kits pounding out its heartbeat. Earplugs will be available. (No kidding.)
     Directed by Brooke O’Harra, the samurai soap opera conveys overwrought emotions at every turn with the oversized acting of early Hollywood scenery-chewing. In fact, sometimes these characters break into hokey melodramatic dialogue from the ’30s and ’40s films of Preston Sturges, showing how crass pop culture exploitation knows no borders of culture, language, or time.
     Eighteenth-century Japan was a time of hyper-strict social constraints and status obligations, quite a pressure cooker for hanky-panky urges. (Drinking from a cup that an adulterer drank from made you his or her depraved equivalent, we are informed.) Doing what you’re supposed to do instead of what you want to do is a demand that couldn’t be farther away from our age, here epitomized by the punk-rock ’70s.
     Obligations get everybody in this story in trouble. When it starts out, the samurai husband of Otane (Heidi Schreck) has been away for a year. Their son Bunrocker (played behind a mask by various company members) is getting drumming lessons from traveling teacher Getiton (Mike Mikos). Politeness demands that Otone not stop drinking sake before her guest does, and that ends in his drunken snooze in a nearby room. That’s scandalous enough. But with inconvenient timing, samurai neighbor Isogay Yougayman (Nadia Madhi) bursts in to suggest that while the hubby’s away, the wifey can play. For purposes of suspense, let’s fade out that scene and let her decide which suitor is more suitable.
     Otane’s husband, Ogah Hecouldkillyou (David Brooks), returns in Episode 3 and falls into his own set of moral/hypocritical con¬undrums. One complication is that his wife’s sister, Ofuji (Tatiana Pavela), has been writing him love letters and wants him to divorce Otane. Wait — don’t jump to conclusions. There is a perfectly sisterly reason for Ofuji’s behavior, we learn, one elegantly designed to try to save Otane’s life if he finds out that she has been fooling around. (Her chatterbox maid spills the beans by revealing her purchase of abortion medicine, as Laryssa Husiak delivers the nickels and dimes details with delirious patter-song speed.)
     Hecouldkillyou, wearing a bicycle helmet and waving around a padded sword, is played with appropriate wussy hesitations by Brooks. In commenting contrast, O’Harra acts with more manly fierceness as Shesodownuknowit, a samurai who joins them in Kyoto when the whole troupe goes to sushi-fy the drummer. Actual acting isn’t really required here, though, in this romp of stylized farce. Nevertheless, Pavela does a hilariously on-the-money samurai grimace that is seen in classic woodblock prints. And Schreck is inventive as Otane who, while being reprimanded by her sister, practices various forms of suicide, concluding by swinging and lingering at the end of an imaginary rope.
     That last image might owe its timing to director O’Harra, for all we know, but this adaptation has been collectively created by the company, with no one singled out for writing credit. From whatever source, there are some good touches here: Japanese literary diction used pauses and stretched out syllables to shape emphasis, so occasionally a word here gets odd pronunciation (“Loo . . . k!”); servants must have felt especially bottled up back then, so Husiak gets some additional punk-thrashing time.
     Music was composed by Brendan Connelly and delivered by him on keyboard (doubling as narrator), with Tony Gedrich on bass and Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio on drums.
     You may or may not want to use the earplugs, but you’ll definitely feel an urge to bang your head on the nearest wall as this hysterical tragedy comedy reminds you how people, through every era and error, keep bungling through the same mistakes.