Enter the Dream

A fever dream. An obsession. A Zen meditation. Willamette University’s double-bill of The Feathered Mantle and The Weaver & the Dress, directed by Jubilith Moore, is all of these things and more. The first is an English translation of the Japanese Noh play, Hagoromo; the second is a modern poem about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera performed in the Noh style. The combination is absolutely unique to Salem, and if you have any curiosity in theatre at all, you should see it.

Noh is the oldest of the traditional Japanese forms, dating from the 14th century. A Noh play combines Buddhist stories with ritualized movement, chanting, drums, flute, and masks into an hour-long performance. That is a description of Noh. But experiencing Noh is like… eating a chocolate so rich you can only have one a year: delicious, exquisite, ephemeral, with a taste that lingers.

Willamette has brought in another highly talented guest director to helm this project, Jubilith Moore, formerly of the Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco, one of only two active Noh companies in the United States. Moore translated the first piece into English and trained Willamette’s actors from scratch in just five weeks. (Traditional Noh performers practice for a lifetime, passing their secrets down family lines.) What is the play about? Both Moore and the pre-show lecturer describe Noh as a dream: a non-linear series of images that are internally consistent but difficult to recall. So there was this fisherman? And he finds a magic cloak… and then a ghost dances? The description loses all flavor and does no justice to a piece of such aesthetic power. Moore explains that bad Noh keeps you awake; good Noh takes you into the dream.

The Willamette students are, as always, possessed of incredible talent and dedication. Whom to praise in the cast? The chorus, who maintained a steady rhythm of Japanese chanting for over an hour? The two fisherman, who sat motionless for forty minutes? The two actors who played the Celestial Maiden, each with absolute precision of movement? (Watch the feet: Noh is sometimes called “the art of walking.”) I give one special praise to Jenny Salwitz for what I can only describe here as VOCAL POWER. Kudos as well to Willamette’s regular production team for recreating the traditional Noh stage, costuming, and lighting exactly right.

Noh is clearly not for everyone. Larry Kominz, the pre-show lecturer from Portland State, warned us that “Noh is not something you enjoy. It’s something that happens to you.” But I did enjoy it. I loved it. I want more. It is pure theatre See it (and you should): Relax. Let the play wash over you. Enter the dream. The Feathered Mantle and The Weaver & the Dress run through April 30.

Penny for a Pee?

On the completely other side of the spectrum, Pentacle delivers another solid musical theatre production with Urinetown: The Musical, directed by Katie Lindbeck.

Half parody, half satire, Urinetown tells the unlikely story of a town (a country? The entire world?) beset by a water shortage that forces all of the citizens to pay to use a public toilet (private toilets having long since been outlawed). The burden falls hardest upon the poor, while the corporate overlords of Urine Good Company rake in the profits. Half the fun comes from the play’s send up of the musical comedy form, with constant winks to the audience in songs like “Too Much Exposition.”

Vocal performances were strong throughout the cast, but especially from leads James Owen as plucky hero Bobby Strong, and Pentacle newcomer Kurleen Nowickas as ingénue Hope Cladwell. Nowickas was a refreshing and welcome addition to the lineup; her training in opera made her a standout vocalist. Choreography by Geri Sanders is lively and fun. Overall directing was clean and fast-paced. Both directing and choreography took advantage of the thrust stage and played to the sides of the audience (thank you).

On the night I went, the actors were hitting their beats, but for some reason the audience was not responding. A slow night? The second act worked better, with choreography and singing firing on all cylinders and getting the audience moving.

Whereas The Feathered Mantle elevates to the sublime, Urinetown wraps itself in the familiar tropes of musical theatre and revels in the self-parody. Famed British director Peter Brook would call the former Holy and the latter Vital. Both are essential. Urinetown plays through May 7.

 

“‘They seek him here, they seek him there,” Jay Gipson-King is a local educator and theatre artist, and Salem Weekly’s Salem Pimpernel. Keep up with Jay and see the full list of area auditions and performances at facebook.com/SalemTheatreNetwork.