Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Play Is Born: 'Our Planet' Emerges From Beyond The Fourth Wall

Japan Society's reflecting pool: garnering primordial oohs since 1971.

An actor steps into the reflecting pool near the back of the lobby of Japan Society’s landmarked building. It’s the kind of thing many a young visitor to the building (and perhaps some of the adult ones) itches to try—just cast off their socks and go splashing in the water. But our actor wets his feet with a purpose: the creation of the world.

It’s the first scene of Alec Duffy’s English adaptation of Yukio Shiba’s Our Planet, opening tomorrow at Japan Society, and the room is near total darkness. The actor, Julian Rozzell, Jr. pulls candles from a backpack and sets them afloat. These are the stars of first creation. After a while, he changes character to become Terri, the Earth personified as an ordinary Tokyo dweller, in a tale juxtaposed with our planet’s birth and death. The dark, now barely broken by the candles’ flames, melts away room by room as he and actress Jenny Seastone Stern guide the audience through transformed public and private spaces.

Shiba's work won him one of Japan’s highest playwriting honors, the Kishida Drama Award, at the age of 27. In converting the entire Japan Society space into a stage for the play, Duffy assumes the role of creator as much as Rozzell with his candles. Where Shiba’s original production stood out for its minimalist staging, with only a white circle painted in the center to represent the edges of the universe, Duffy’s adaptation expands--a big bang of creativity from that first scene, to fill the unseen corners of Japan Society, taking audiences from the lobby to the atrium to the cubicles behind, even pausing to visit the site of Mariko Mori’s Rebirth, an appropriate stop to match this ultimately hopeful tale of life and death.

With its unique mix of bamboo greenery, a waterfall in the lobby, wood paneling throughout, and hidden offices, Japan Society's building is a planet unto itself. The gradual reveal of the interior allows the audience to witness a kind of twin birth, of both Shiba’s brainchild and of Planet 333 East 47, now terraformed by the hands of Duffy and his creative crew.

Duffy talks indepth about his conception of Our Planet.

Already a star in the New York theater scene, Duffy is no stranger to adapting unconventional spaces for a performance. His 2010 revival of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral took place in the Brooklyn-based Church of St. Joseph, and his theater company’s adaptation Shadows from the 1959 John Cassavetes film made use of a garage that opened onto the street.

Viewers of Duffy’s production should anticipate a very different show than the Japanese original. Apart from the reduction of the cast from eight to two, as well as a departure from the rap style of dialogue in the Japanese version, Duffy’s adaptation takes the idea of an imagined planetary boundary, conveyed in the original through the white circle on the floor, much further by expanding that boundary to the roofs and walls of Japan Society.

The freedom to improvise upon Shiba’s core idea, especially as it related to staging, was something that immediately drew Duffy to the script. In his own words:
A lot of plays that I read are pretty much successful only if they’re staged exactly as the playwright intends, and the playwright will often make a lot of notes on the set design, even the blocking and what happens on stage… But this play was so open and flexible that I thought it would be a lot of fun to collaborate with some artists to create a full production.
Among Duffy’s many collaborators helping him push the boundaries of staging and space in this production is Nobuyuki Hanabusa, a Japanese artist known for his innovative live motionographic performances, in which an actor or dancer seems to interact with a CGI visual on the screen behind him. One of his digital creations will unfold atop a long table in the Society's posh Murase room, where the two actors perform in conjunction with the moving pictures. 

Mimi Lien, in charge of scenic design, is known for hyper-realistic sets, with credits including Zero Cost House, inspired in part by Thoreau’s Walden, and Elephant Room, and won an OBIE award for sustained excellence last year. In Our Planet, she is turning this tradition of realism on its head by taking a (literally) concrete stage, the Japan Society building, and putting it to use as an expression of the abstract turns of space and time.

Duffy’s adaptation marks a monumental undertaking, not only on his part as director, but also on that of Japan Society itself. With the building acting simultaneously as both planet and universe, one where productions like Our Planet can be born and thrive (and in fact where well over 600 productions have been produced in 60 years), one need only to attend to witness the building blocks of creative life within these walls.

--Andres Oliver

Jenny Seastone Stern and Julian Rozzell, Jr.rehearse in the bambbo. 
[UPDATED 11/20/13]

Photos by George Hirose (top) and Ben Warren (bottom). 

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