BWW Interviews THE BLACK LIZARD, Playing at Imago Theatre through June 2nd
We here at Broadway World in Portland (read: I here at Broadway World in Portland) have been going on and on about this little play out of Imago Theatre, THE BLACK LIZARD. Well, there’s a reason. The running of this show is being hailed as a surprise success and the story is a punch to the gut that halts you, takes you for a little journey, and ultimately leaves you lying on the floor as it stalks off to admire its own reflection. Nude. (There’s nudity in the play, so that tangent is relevant). Everything about the show makes for a great evening out, and I was lucky enough to score a chat with several of the big players.
What follows is a short interview involving Jerry Mouawad (director), Laurence Kominz (dramaturge), Anne Sorce (The Black Lizard), and Matthew DiBiasio (Detective Kogoro Akechi), all from Imago Theatre's THE BLACK LIZARD. We discuss the play itself, working in Portland, working with each other, and the excitement of engaging with Yukio Mishima. Lastly, I should note that this is an interview that will be even more interesting for those of you that have seen THE BLACK LIZARD already, which means it’s just another reason for you to go see this amazing show! What are you waiting for?! There’s nudity!
BWW: For all of you, how are you feeling right now? The season's halfway gone, are you and the cast in a good place? Tired? Excited? Where are we at?
JERRY: We're very excited about the production. The show received more attention than I thought - when you continually create adventurous risky work you're not sure when one of them takes off. This one has.
ANNE: I’m feeling good. I wake up excited to go do the show. Each time is a chance to play and I always have things I want to try.
MATT: There was, and still is, a lot to figure out about this play and I still feel pretty energized and intrigued when I think about it. I am still interested in this show. The rehearsal process was longer than I am used to, but because of how Jerry rehearsed it, and the attention given to tech elements early on, it wasn't as tiring as 7 weeks of rehearsal sounds.
BWW: I have other questions specifically concerning THE BLACK LIZARD, but I also want to place this show in a broader context. This is the first English translation of this play and you've put it on in a city that has pretty great theater already. How was it, putting this show on in Portland? Do you feel audiences were ready for it? Were you nervous it might not click?
ANNE: Ready or not, here it is! One thing I love about working with Imago is that they are interested in exploring and doing new things. As an artist I find that exciting, but I also enjoy it as an audience member. I like going to see things that are imaginative and surprising. Working on this piece, there was a vision and an exploration Jerry wanted to see through and as a performer I am working with him to achieve that. That is what I’m focused on. We have to see it through and then share it and see what it evokes for people, how they respond.
JERRY: Imago is a place for risk taking. We have taken much bigger risks than "The Black Lizard" - in fact I see this play as one of our more conventional works. As to how I would feel if it had failed in Portland? It's would have been fine with me. But it didn't fail - the opposite happened (which is always good). When you experiment you need to be prepared for failure, and sometime from failure comes the unexpected. Risk taking in theater is painful and heartbreaking but ultimately it can be invigorating and certainly more rewarding than not taking risks.
BWW: Laurence, what prompted the selection of this play to bring to Imago Theatre? Why did you choose to work on the Black Lizard?
LAURENCE: The decision to produce Black Lizard lies entirely with Jerry (and Carol). What I wanted to do was to introduce Jerry to the plays of Yukio Mishima. I was confident that Mishima was the kind of playwright that would excite Jerry. Jerry read my Mishima play anthology, and the well-known anthology of modern Noh plays translated by Donald Keene. He and I discussed producing several other Mishima plays, before deciding on "The Black Lizard."
BWW: You were working with a translation of an adaptation of a Noir novel, specifically discussing a playwright who was a bit of a purist with the notable exception of this play. That's a lot of diluting. What does it take to get a project such as this off the ground?
LAURENCE: I personally feel that Mishima's best plays are so rich in meaning, and so entertaining in terms of plot and character, that they have a good chance of success in any country, and translated into any language. Mishima's modern Noh plays are the most frequently performed Japanese plays outside of Japan.
I didn't think that anyone could do a better, more imaginative directorial job than Jerry, and when I saw his cast in rehearsal I knew that this would be a successful play. It's clear that our local critics understand and enjoy it. Audience generation is a little different. Portland has come a long way as a theater town in the last decade or so, but it is still a little provincial in that audiences tend to be skittish about totally unfamiliar plays and playwrights. A play like "Black Lizard" needs a long enough run for word of mouth to kick in. The marquee alone won't sell out this play. I hope that the play becomes a "tourist attraction."
BBW: Jerry, I read that THE BLACK LIZARD is a bit of a deviation from your last several plays, which were all silent I believe? What is it about this play that coaxed you out of the quiet? Was this a comfortable move? Especially since there's so much in this production that plays with voice and the projection of internal dialogue.
JERRY: I have directed text based plays my whole life. The last five plays - my "Opera Beyond Words" were silent and actually they were the exception (not considering the family work Imago produces) It was engaging to return to text based work but what was most exciting about this production is that it demanded me to address naturalism versus style. I like that challenge. I liked that I could not completely adhere to naturalism and/or realism.
BBW: Alright, Anne and Matt, I haven’t forgotten about you! First Matt, 'the detective' is about as iconic a role as one can play, recognizable to a T for their qualities. What is it then that you focus on showing us as an audience, what element of this character did you want to bring to life? And which detectives (if any) from works you're familiar with were you able to draw from?
MATT: I felt aware early on of the need to honor both story and style for the role of ‘The Detective’. I would share movement ideas or style ideas with Jerry and he would guide me into an area that encompassed things he has in mind, but still gave me room to play and discover. I see the iconographic elements of the detective as part of the style of the world he lives in…an exaggerated, inflated world, where the rules of our reality don't necessarily apply. I studied the movements and character traits of different detectives from Noir films from The Maltese Falcon to Dick Tracy. The ‘man-in-control’ and also the ‘troubled’ qualities were something we talked about as early as the audition.
LAURENCE: I love Matt's parodic hard-boiled detective. I think that this is exactly what Mishima was aiming at in this play. Mishima sets up the "romance of crime" half tongue-in-cheek. The truly realistic view of crime is not hidden – Kizu expresses it in Act II. But neither Akechi nor the Black Lizard are capable of seeing the reality and ugliness of crime. I think that Akechi exists to enforce the vulnerability of those with dangerously anti-social obsessions...but we have to remember that Mishima himself is Black Lizard, not Akechi. In a way Mishima is saying, "I have dangerous obsessions which I can't control, and in the end I'm doomed to lose, to die at the hands of men like Akechi and Kizu.”
BWW: Anne, The Black Lizard is an intense and dynamic character, a femme fatale who's been given more of a spotlight than most Noir heroines. Tell me about her, as she is to you. What did you have to bring to her, and what did she bring to the table already?
ANNE: She’s a chameleon, so that requires (but also allows) me to play so many different things. She’s playful in that way, she’s having fun! So I enjoy being playful myself. But then, meeting Akechi and the feelings he brings out in her cause her to unravel. And, yes, as you say in this play and in this production she is also the heroine. So that, again, both requires and allows me to bring a truthfulness and vulnerability to her. At one point in rehearsals Jerry said to me, “You should never think of anything she does as false.” We played and explored lots of different things with her throughout rehearsals to find something that was both “other worldly” and sincerely frightening but at the same time someone who would remain the protagonist and be someone the audience would enjoy watching. I wondered for a long time what the core of her was, since she does shift so much, but now I think the core comes from me. Being truthful in some way in everything she does and bringing something unique and truthful from myself to each of the styles and aspects of her.
BWW: I read that you are very involved with physical theater companies, is that right? Did any of your experience in that style of theater come in handy here? This is a play that has very careful visual composition it seems.
ANNE: I think my background in physical theater helps me bring a readiness to play and try all kinds of things in rehearsal. Having had lots of experience making original work I am very used to feeling, “We don’t know what it is or how it works…” and the answer is always, “So get up on your feet and try.”
BWW: Laurence, anything to add about the Black Lizard herself?
LAURENCE: I think that Anne has created a wonderful Black Lizard. The character is mesmerizing and complex, disturbing and sympathetic, funny and self-pitying. She's the lynchpin of the play, and Anne makes it a success. Of course Anne as a person is nothing at all like this character, so it's a wonderful tribute to her skill as an actress. I saw in rehearsal that she brought prodigious physical, vocal, and interpretive skill to the task of creating this Lizard. She’ll be modest and deflect all the praise she's been getting...but I hope Portland takes notice of this very talented, hard working newly arrived actress.
BWW: An important part of the story is the engagement between the Black Lizard and Akechi, the desires of each for the other. As actors, how do you make a crucial element such as that work? ALSO, purely in addressing your own characters, did you feel their 'love' was real?
MATT: Akechi's "love" is still a tricky thing for me, I am not sure he knows quite what it is. The dynamic between the characters, for me, comes a lot from the obsession they both display.
ANNE: We talked a lot about this. The ‘love’ they each experience and the arch of how it plays out in the story…it’s very different for each of us. For me, I felt that the Black Lizard had constructed a world for herself in which she had never experienced the feeling of love. When she starts to fall for Akechi it is as much about discovering and feeling this new sensation for the first time and it completely undoes her. She cannot reconcile these feelings with the world she has built. For me she goes through this sense of “young love” that is new and intoxicating, all consuming, but then struggles with it for much of the rest of the play – her desire for love, but her fear and sense of losing control – and it gives way to a more mature experience of love and way of wrestling with it. Then when she is mourning for Akechi, while there is a deep sense of loss, she is experiencing an incredible sense of loneliness, and in a sense she is also mourning for herself in knowing that she is incapable of having real love.
BWW: I need to raise the question of the Kabuki elements of this play. It seems to me that the melodrama of early Noir qualifies the high-theatricality of this story rather than Kabuki. It may go hand in hand with the high-theatricality of Kabuki but as an audience we recognize it MORE in the detective story. Tell me then where you feel the Asian Theater elements affect this narrative, or do those elements remain just as a stylistic overlay for a well-told crime thriller?
LAURENCE: With "The Black Lizard", Mishima created a very successful hybrid play, a hybrid between Kabuki and modern psychological drama...two genres he knew well, and for which he had written many successful plays.
For example, Mishima's "straight" plays had tended to preserve the three unities of time, place, action, but kabuki plays have outlandish, almost unbelievable plots, they leap all over the map and back and forth in time, and they feature soliloquies, dancing, singing, and multiple disguises and deceptions. Kabuki plays generally do not involve serious psychological exploration of character…Mishima tended to avoid foregrounding serious personal or social issues in his kabuki plays, but he did so in his "straight" plays. As you can tell, "The Black Lizard" is a wonderful hybrid of these two styles.
JERRY: To be honest - I have not studied Kabuki or any Asian form – although I am heavily inspired by it. Just like Quentin Tarentino might riff off Asian films - I riffed off Kabuki. Although I must say my background from Jacques Lecoq has many affinities to Kabuki - use of style, use of minimalism, ways at expanding naturalism to high style - all this came from Lecoq.
BWW: Before we wrap up, I really also want to discuss the playwright, Yukio Mishima, who adapted the original novel for the stage. What do you feel Mishima did for this play that made it so worthwhile?
JERRY: Simply answered- I read the play and was moved by his poetic way of handling a campy noir story. I saw it as vehicle for combining forms of theater I was interested in combining: dance, style, naturalism, influences from Richard Foreman and Lecoq.
ANNE: Having read the original novel as well, for me the poetry of the language Mishima brought is what holds the form we’re exploring. Also, he strengthened the themes in what to me is a quite beautiful way through the contrasts and relationship between the Black Lizard and the detective.
LAURENCE: These are issues here that Mishima struggled with from the time he was a child, and which he featured in his best writing (starting with the hit autobiographical novel, "Confessions of a Mask" in 1949), and which he resolved with his suicide in 1970. The play is adapted from one of Mishima's favorite pulp novels, a novel that epitomizes the "romantic, grotesque nonsense" literary movement of the '20s and '30s. Luckily, no one in Portland theater does erotic grotesque nonsense better than Jerry.
BWW: Finally, this seems to be simultaneously a celebration of convention as well as a subversion of it. You give a nod and a wink to every campy Noir convention, but then you chuck it on its head with identity crisis, with masks, with geisha-esque dances that are jarring instead of graceful...What is the Black Lizard? Where does it fit? And why should people go see it?
LAURENCE: It's about identity and disguise, and about beauty as the ultimate human value...beyond life itself.
JERRY: And when a work is hard to define - isn't that reason enough to see it? It doesn't fit anywhere - I like much of the work in the city - but frankly it all "fits" in too easily with one another.
ANNE: The Black Lizard, the character, the play, and the production, keep unfolding and turning to reveal something new. It is a playful journey into a sparkling, beautiful world only to reveal a dark underside. Come see it because it is unlike anything you’ve seen before!
Mishima’s THE BLACK LIZARD, playing at Imago Theatre, closes June 2nd, 2012. Tickets are $15-30, click the link for more information:
Photo credit: Sumi Wu