Let’s begin with some math. The subtitle of This Lingering Life (which will be lingering downstairs at HERE until Oct. 4) is, Nine Noh Plays in pre-prologue, prologue, twenty scenes, two sightings, epilogue and optional one-to-three crossings in 80 American minutes. The play has 28 characters, portrayed by 10 different actors, and is led by one director, Cat Miller. That a play with nine tales is headed up by someone named Cat is the sort of karmic coincidence that is perfectly in keeping with this work, which dwells on such themes as past lives, the fluidity of time, and tragic irony. And if the sum of all these parts does not quite add up to transcendence, they do, at least, get a person thinking about the metaphysical. It’s the kind of experimental theater that has haunted downtown New York for generations.
Playwright Chiori Miyagawa has embraced some of the basic tenets of Japanese Noh theater, such as the large ensemble, and the presence of ghosts and warriors, discarded others, such as the dancing and chanting, and then mixed in healthy doses of madness, Oedipal impulses, and, of all things, a woman whose hair tragically grows in the wrong direction. The work begins with an unidentified character (Ronald Cohen) wandering onto the stage under the pretense of spoiling the night by revealing the nine stories that are about to be told. But in presenting just the barest bones of each, what is actually happening is a clever planting of seeds. As the play moves forward, the audience is always, satisfyingly, remembering back. Unfortunately, Cohen presents the material in the guise of a somewhat befuddled professor, a choice that is tonally off from the rest of the evening.
The stories progress in a non-linear fashion, one moment contemporary, the next ancient, weaving in and out of each other in two or three character vignettes, telling of mothers who have lost their sons, a wounded warrior and his attacker, lovers from disapproving families, an old gardener’s obsession with the wrong kind of beauty. Gems of dialog occasionally rise to the surface. When, late in the play, a character tosses off the phrase “water under the bridge,” it instantly harkens back to a previously described horrid drowning of a boy and girl. And when the ghosts of that drowned duo begin to plot vengeance, a priest utters the evening’s ultimate message, “There is no need to haunt anyone. Everyone alive is already haunted.”
Wandering through it all is the night’s erstwhile narrator, that Woman with the Tragic Hair (Meg MacCary). Self-proclaimed as mad, but perhaps just highly self-aware, she is understandably unsettled not only by her uncontrollable curls, but by the fact that she knows she exists inside of a play. When she is asked “Is this all about you?” the confused look on her face is priceless as she responds, “I don’t know.” MacCary’s comic timing is spot on, and she does a fine job of bringing the audience into the scattered world she inhabits.
The casting is gender blind; girls will be boys and boys will be girls, to quote a wise poet. This seems neither especially startling nor especially misguided, in the context of this production. It just feels like novelty for novelty’s sake. The production’s largest misstep though is having Luke Forbes portray a teen girl named Princess. In a Chanel mini-skirt and affecting the voice and mannerisms of a privileged Valley girl, he seems very much a man in drag doing a comic turn, missing out on the needed empathy. Faring better is Stephanie Weeks, as an angel. Not the Angels in America type, that crashes through the roof in the midst of a very specific plague, but rather one that arrives, fittingly, on roller skates, offering salvation to a world filled with all kinds of trouble.
This Lingering Life – by Chiori Miyagawa; Directed by Cat Miller
WITH: Ronald Cohen, Amir Darvish, Francesca Day, Luke Forbes, William Franke, Vanessa Kai, Marta Kuersten, Meg MacCary, Enormvs Muñoz, and Stephanie Weeks.
Scenic Design by Kate Noll; Lighting Design by Nastassia Jimenez; Sound Design by M. Florian Staab; Costume Design by Becky Bodurtha; Stage Manager, Courtney Ferrell; at HERE 145 Sixth Ave, 212-352-3101, Through October 4th,http://here.org/shows/detail/1531/, Running Time: 80 minutes