BWW Reviews THE BLACK LIZARD at Imago Theatre: The Dance of Kabuki and Noir


I admit to being nervous upon sitting down for THE BLACK LIZARD at Imago Theatre, the small auditorium slowly filling with a crowd plucked right out of the Burnside east-of-the-river district. The advertisement sports words like “grotesque” and “for adults only”, and to be honest my Saturday was a tossup between this production and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, so for those of you feeling hesitant in approaching such a play, believe me I understand. But I have emerged from the experience confident that this is a play worth your while. This is a play worth your time. THE BLACK LIZARD is a character crime thriller that basks in its roots of Noir and Kabuki Theater, succeeding as a production due to the talents of a very visual choreographer and extremely capable physical actors. Where this play is at risk of being too much, its writing steps in and saves face. Similarly where the content is potentially too old fashioned, a strong embrace of style serves as more than a nod-and-wink to the audience. But let’s not run before we can basket weave. Or something. Anyway – the story:

The narrative itself is a straightforward crime drama concerning a serial thief and obsessionist, yet it functions in three separate ways that are very interesting (these being Noir, Kabuki, and character drama). I say interesting because nothing about each individual element is by any means traditional, in fact it is often quite the opposite. For example, the classic Noir staples of detective and femme fatale are clearly present, their motivations are similar to what you’d expect (detective: the cold preservation of justice, getting the job done, and femme fatale: moved by passion, electric with sexuality, and inevitably has something to do with being the villain) but see, I can tell you about the femme fatale being a villain in this play and it’s not even a spoiler, those lines are drawn in the first few minutes. What is surprising is that this particular villain winds up being more of a protagonist than the detective. There are twists still, and we certainly don’t support all of the protagonist’s ambitions (at the very least I hope your choice of home décor differs from hers), but it’s an interesting subversion that achieves a lot, especially when you consider that the “Golden Age” of Noir (at least in Film where the genre is most easily identifiable) has a bit of gender imbalance in favor of hardboiled masculinity, with women being meek and needing protection or alternatively being cold, calculating…people. Bad people. You get the picture.

But that was an easy one. The Noir stylings and subversions accomplish a lot and they’re a great reason to see the show, but another interesting happening to mention is the Kabuki element of the play. I admit to a certain occupation of the shallow end in the Olympic-sized swimming pool that is Asian theater, which most of my theater cohorts from university will slander and chastise me for. So be it. There is a dance after the closing of the first scene, and honestly I would love to magically have mass insight into what every audience member thought of it. Three women enter in full-on Geisha makeup and perform a synchronized dance while they stare deep into your soul. The dance is confronting and intense and not graceful per say but precise and mechanical, then there’s a shorter dance later on and the dancers appear as part of the ensemble once but predominantly exist as a weird external element of the play. The dance certainly wasn’t a pantomime, it didn’t function as a chorus, so…was it just self-indulgent hyper-theatricality? I know dance is hugely incorporated in Kabuki Theater, but that sort of dance is more integrated into the narrative than this was. The best I can come up with is that it allowed time for costume changes (which is practical) and potentially continued on the subversive and abrasive elements of the play (which is a stretch), but that’s it. You may think it strange to dwell on, but it speaks to the overarching use of Kabuki theater in the play: interesting in its strangeness and executed well, but when it really comes down to it…not at all necessary. Other than the enjoyment we received in it existing within itself, in the presentation of everything in that heightened dramatic tone, the Kabuki didn’t really add anything or modify the reading we received from the story, which makes it slightly masturbatory. And yet I loved it. Don’t read too much into that.

Then there’s this mention of character drama, which I’m actually going to give credit to the actors for making so successful. In the midst of a very dynamic production, with aside monologues, lots of lighting and sound effect cues, video segments, a lot of stylistic intertextuality, and a story that moves in leaps and bounds, somehow a very substantial amount of character shone through. There was something so tangible about these figures even though they seemed to be written as more caricature than character. Anne Sorce absolutely kills it as Black Lizard. In fact, after the end of the climactic first half, as the lights came up for intermission, the lady friend who I usually drag to productions looked at me wide-eyed and said of Anne Sorce, “Holy shit. She is awesome.” and even if were I more verbose and capable I do not think I would want to explain the excitement generated by these characters any other way.

I feel to expand too much upon anything else would ruin potentially great encounters for you, which is a shame because there’s so much to talk about, so please just go see it. The show was fantastic and a thrill-ride and there were naked people. Clearly I became less apprehensive about that part. And while I probably will go see If You Give a Mouse a Cookie at some point, I am so glad I caught this show as soon as I did. What a winner.

THE BLACK LIZARD plays through June 2nd at Imago Theatre.  Ticket prices are $15 to $30 (pay what you can) and can be purchased by calling Imago at 503.231.9581 or online at or 503.224.8499. The production plays Thursdays at 7:30 and Friday and Saturday at 8:00. The production contains nudity and is recommended for adults.

Photo credit Sumi Wu

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