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Under the Radar

On a recent short visit to New York City I discovered performance pieces the press against the umbrella term “theatre”, presentations as diverse as 600 Highwaymen’s audience collaboration titled “The Fever”, or rapper James Allister Sprang’s orchestral “Life Does Not Live.”

For me, “Club Diamond” proved a most provocative narrative that spanned generations and evocations of bygone creative genres. Performance artist and dancer Saori Tsukada hones her life experiences as an immigrant into a sultry evocation of 1930s Hollywood in a black and white silent film reminiscent of those of Anna May Wong, narrated by Tsukada herself in the persona of a Benshi. 

Some explanation is due here, for in Japan, silent films were narrated in a similar style recalling puppet theatre traditions from the mid-17th century rather than musical accompaniment favored by the Americans during the teens and 20s.  Unlike the Americans who lost organ and piano gigs, Benshi lost their entire occupation when talkies came on the scene. 

Part two features Tsukada as a broken-down benshi on a bicycle, retelling his story through a series of stills instead of cinema. Co-created and directed by Nikki Appino, the performance and film add to a sweeping view of an artist’s life throughout the 20th century. Tim Fain’s violin improvisations augments Ms. Tsukada’s performance Together, their effect is heartbreaking.

Although performed as part of Under Radar, I waited until REDCAT reprised “God Bliss” (In the Name of Semelah), a riotous blend of Javanese puppet and live theatre called Wayang Bocor. The sum of a syncretic influences can be found in this story of the “Islamification” of Java, including Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi storytelling.  The almost incredible tale concerns Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine Islamic saints who brought a new faith to the country.  As a child this saint, called Sahid, learned to rob from the rich to give to the poor. But upon conversion, he gave it up.  He continues to be revered as a champion of the people.

The production is a communal effort, employing the talents of at least eight artists. Using an anachronistic blend of live Sanskrit performance, wayang puppets and even video game graphics, creator Eko Nugroho, along with director Gunawon Maryanto,  weaves this tale through song, ersatz cartooning and armies of puppets to relate his story. Electronic music and sound emanates from Ari Wulu.  A number of performers manipulate the puppets, provide voices and impersonate various characters both before and behind the puppetry screen.  It is a friendly, ever blending and separating, jumble of loosely connected scenes, illuminating the saga of saint Sunan Kalijaga in founding an Islam of love and not vengeance.

REDCAT’s next theatrical presentation, Teatro El Público’s Antigonón, un contingente epico, starts March 15th  followed by the Wooster Group’s annual visit.  REDCAT can be found beneath Walt Disney Hall, corner of First Street and Grand, Los Angeles 90012.  Consult for more information about their season of diverse offerings in theatre, cinema and dance.