Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp DC Review
Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards
by Rich See
East meets West for a whimsical evening in Rorschach Theatre's Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards. Peter Oswald's production is based upon a play by 17th century Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who is widely regarded as the Shakespeare of Japanese theatre. Melding incredibly poetic language with samurai action and insightful humor, Fair Ladies is the story of two warriors in love with two ladies in waiting of the Imperial Court.
The young women are bound by custom to remain pure and chaste, while serving her royal highness, the Empress. The samurai, who serve the Empress' brother, Lord Shigemori, break custom to have clandestine meetings with their lovers -- much to the anger of Lord Morotaka who happens to be in love with one of the women. Morotaka, corroded by his bitterness, attempts to kill the four young lovers while making it appear like he is carrying out the wishes of the Empress and her brother. Like any good romantic script, heartache, loneliness, danger and treachery proceed through the six year-long battle of good over evil.
Playwright Oswald's script is beautifully phrased, although at times it can be hard to follow. This is definitely a "listening" play -- meaning pay attention! Realizing that all the Japanese names may slightly hamper audience's appreciation of the script, Rorschach has tried to assist us by providing a chart of the characters and their relationships within the Imperial Court. I highly recommend reviewing it so you can more easily follow the action on stage.
Rorschach, which is devoted to the magical aspects of storytelling, provides an interesting melding of Asian and American pacing for this story. There are aspects of American culture enmeshed within the Japanese styling. Hence, Debra Kim Sivigny's costumes are authentic kimonos, yet underneath the young women are wearing everyday modern skirts and blouses. This modern meets ancient brings out the humanity in the story and helps personalize the characters a bit more.
While the younger cast members provide the energy and youthful enthusiasm, the older characters provide the calmness and centeredness to balance out the story. The yin to the yang...or is that the yang to the yin? Either way, director Randy Baker has achieved an interesting and idiosyncratic balance.
Nathaniel John Sebastian Sinnott's set is a series of Japanese screens with a towering walkway for the Moon to ascend her nightly travels. Justin Thomas' Japanese lanterns and backdrop lighting effects create a lovely mood for the piece.
Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba has done a good job, as the fight sequences appear uncontrived and free flowing. While Matthew Frederick's sound design incorporates new age music, Asian melodies from artists like Eri Sugai, and some interesting indie rock by Imogen Heap and the bands Gomez and Macha.
Standing out in the cast are Rahaleh Nassri and Al Twanmo as the ever calm and wise Empress and her brother, Lord Shigemori. Patrick Bussink and Cesar A. Guadamuz as the devil-may-care samurai who come to repent their youthful arrogance, but persevere in their quest for love. Nelina Giridhar and Jai Khalsa, as the ladies in waiting who are sentenced to die for their crime of falling in love. And Scott McCormick (who seems to be becoming Rorschach's resident villain) provides a gleefully evil Lord Morotaka.
Rounding out the cast are Yasmin Tuazon, John-Michael MacDonald, Gwen Grastorf, Ghillian Porter, and Paul McLane.
The poem cards referenced in the title is a Japanese game that has been around for many centuries. In karuta, a chanter selects a card and reads aloud the first half of a poem which is written on the card. The players then quickly search for the second half of the poem among the poem cards which have been scattered out on a playing area in front of them. The first person to find the correct ending to the poem wins the card.
The poetry which the game is based upon is a style of Japanese poetry called waka, which is an older form than haiku and uses a 5-7-5-7-7 rhythm pattern. Karuta is composed of one hundred poems collected by the nobleman, Fujiwara no Teika, in about 1235 C.E. and spans a literary history from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Over the years, karuta has moved from being a recreational game to a gambling sport. Interestingly, the Nintendo company of computer game fame started out as a manufacturer of poem cards.
Enough history! Go see the play and enjoy the poetic charms of the fair ladies and their samurai. And if you are looking for a date play, Rorschach has a special performance coming up on Valentine's Day for all lovers of romance and poetry.