Loud clicks reverberate through the small black box that the Japan Society’s theater has become for the occasion, insistent sounds that accelerate as a gauzy screen is pulled aside, then another behind it, then another. It’s a fitting beginning for a show whose theatricality emanates not from dialogue or characters, not from songs or story, but from sequences of sliding backdrops.
Not that these “drop” – for the most part, the panels and screens slide in from the sides. What’s technically remarkable about Dogugaeshi, which premiered here nine years ago and then visited many cities before circling back for this brief new engagement, is the illusion of perspective. Master puppeteer Basil Twist describes the old Japanese dogugaeshi “ghost of a tradition” as a “sliding, gliding, horizontal game of suspense, concealment, revelation and transformation.” Modern analogues can be found in video games which reveal a new illustrated background as the gamer advances to each new level of play, and I’m also reminded of the tile-matching game Shanghai, a computerized version of Mahjong solitaire, in which an image gradually appears as you remove tiles from the “board.”
But real screens operated by live humans are infinitely more wondrous. In Dogugaeshi, Twist and three other puppeteers, along with by one onstage musician (Yumiko Tanaka) accompanied by recorded music and soundscapes, glide and slide us through an ever more mesmerizing sequence of non-narrative and sometimes non-representational images. Most are painted and constructed, other created by video projections. A ship bobs on the waves.
An outdoor stage is constructed, then populated with a row of tiny actors. A cavern-like room is painstakingly revealed behind sliding golden panels, then tumbles to pieces in what seems like an earthquake. A fierce dragon looms closer and closer, increasingly terrifying in spite of the fact that he’s just a line drawing. And a lone puppet, a floating, feathery dog-like creature, interjects himself now and then to silently introduce, comment, or dance.
One sequence includes video of a group of elderly Japanese women explaining the pleasures of the dogugaeshi they remember from their youth. A local specialty of Awaji Island, the craft has dwindled mostly to a memory, so it’s not only a pleasure but a privilege to experience it here in the U.S.A. through Twist’s always distinctive creative lens. At the Japan Society through September 22. Tanaka is also giving a shamisen workshop on Nov. 2.