Arigato, Tokyo brings elements of Japanese Noh Theatre to the Toronto stage
The section on Japanese Noh Theatre I took in theatre school has finally come in handy. Daniel MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo, playing at Buddies in Bad Times, uses forms of Noh Theatre in the story of Carl Dewar, a cynical novelist who indulges in wanton sex and drug use to stave off his loneliness. Dewar travels to Japan for a book tour and the play is peppered with readings from this fictional novel, passages that show both disdain and deep longing for romantic love.
Dewar’s handler, Nushi, has read all of his work and, believing she knows him better than he knows himself, is escorting him around the Tokyo area with ulterior motives in mind. As part of an evening’s entertainment she takes him to see the Noh Theatre presentation of the classic Japanese story of Genji, a tale of romantic pitfalls. One of the performers is Nushi’s brother, who knows of her plans for Dewar and plots to thwart them.
Yori’s seduction of Dewar includes a brief explanation of Noh Theatre tradition, which uses very stylized and slow movements to indicate very specific actions. This helps keep the audience from being alienated by the presentation of a scene from Genji. However, the qualities of “stylized and slow”, taken from Noh, are manifested throughout the production, especially in long poetic passages spoken by Etta Waki. Waki is sometimes a trans nightclub singer who Dewar had an affair with on his last trip to Tokyo, but more often speaks as the voice of Tokyo and the narrator of Dewar’s subconscious.
The downside of this is that I found it difficult to maintain attention during these long sections that didn’t seem to further the plot. Often I found myself thinking about the potential issues of casting non-Japanese actors as Japanese characters. They weren’t
necessarily Caucasian so I’m not alleging any yellow-face here. But afterwards when my companion mentioned that he kept being distracted during these monologues by the accent work, I felt like we were experiencing the same thing.
Perhaps we wouldn’t have noticed the non-Japaneseness of the actors quite so much if we had been gripped by onstage action. I feel like the intended effect was supposed to be hypnotic, but that I wasn’t susceptible to that. Of course, the tendency for Western audiences to find Noh theatre “long” is called out during the play, so my inability to focus during these sequences is typical of my North American sensibilities. It was probably a good stretch of my conceptions of theatre to experience that, and overall it was worth it.
The effect of the production is very evocative of the nightmare sensation of being used as a pawn in a game you don’t understand, coupled with the indulgent pleasure of an erotic fantasy. The lasting impression I have taken away is of a beautiful, subtly frightening, and deeply saddening dream.
- Arigato, Tokyo is playing at Buddies in Bad Times, 12 Alexander Street until April 14th.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm.
- Tickets are $31 Tuesday to Thursday, $37 Friday and Saturday, $31 in advance on Sunday and PWYC at the door. Some Rush tickets also available for $20.
- Buy tickets at 416-975-8555 or online or at the venue starting at noon each performance day.
Photo of David Storch and Michael Dufays by Jeremy Mimnagh
Editor’s note: It has been brought to our attention that none of the Japanese characters were played by Caucasian actors, the strikethrough change above reflects that information.