A Long Trek to Bardo

For This Lingering Life, playwright Chiori Miyagawa has drawn elements from nine Noh plays. Initially, she writes in a program note, she wanted to “pay homage to the culture.” But once she began, she revised and adapted them extensively. Elements of the 15th-century theatrical form remain—in its content (several characters are warriors, crazy women, or supernatural beings, such as ghosts or angels) and style (there’s an emphasis on language over physical action, and Becky Bodurtha’s excellent costumes draw on ancient warriors and peasants as well as modern-day dress). 

In other ways, though, the play has little to do with the Noh experience. It consists of vignettes and features a multiracial cast and gender-blind casting. Those elements don’t detract from the whole, but they don’t add much either, except the recognition that a modern sensibility has had a hand in the production. The same goes for the time jumps between past and present, as well as elements of meta-theater, when characters break the fourth wall. “I must be the narrator,” says Meg MacCary’s Woman with Tragic Hair. “Hold on—I have no training as a narrator.” Later on Amir Darvish’s beggar son says to the remorseful father who threw him out, “Classically speaking, I should forgive you”—not only a meta-theater joke, but a meta-theatrical in-joke.

Ronald Cohen plays an elderly host (not the narrator), who helpfuly describes the stories at the outset. One is advised that characters from the five kinds of Noh plays will appear: a warrior, a demon, a woman, a ghost, and a deity, and sometimes more than one. In a program note, Miyagawa says she didn’t like any characters from the women plays, but she felt “duty-bound … to include at least one of them,” so she picked an angel from that group, and “discarded the plot entirely.”

Whether this picking and choosing willy-nilly really pays homage to Noh plays is beside the point. Miyagawa’s plundering of characters to fit into a new plot produces a play that hangs together awkwardly and never catches emotional fire in spite of a game company, Cake Productions. The multiple threads are held together by MacCary’s crazy woman with hair that grows straight up as she searches for her brother, who is blind. She encounters a number of the other characters on her quest to find Bardo, where spirits go after death and wait for reincarnation.

Among the 28 characters are a warrior from the 12th century (Stephanie Weeks, moving persuasively as the opposite gender) who threatens a man dressed in a modern suit (Enormvs Muñoz) with a sword. The man kills the warrior, finds the warrior’s flute and takes it; they seem to reenact the scene over centuries. Two young lovers (Marta Kuersten and Luke Forbes) stand on a floating bridge they use to meet, but the girl’s parents sabotage planks of the bridge, leading to the young man's drowning. Two young guys in tracksuits (Forbes and Vanessa Kai) show up, as does a gardener (Kai as a man) who is hoodwinked into believing the young daughter of the wealthy employer has the hots for him. Two modern-day backpackers (William Franke, who resembles a young Garrison Keillor, and Forbes) encounter a distraught mother in brightly colored clothing searching for her son.

Some moments work well, especially the tenderness in the  young lovers’ scene, and the occasional line startles: “Everyone alive is already haunted.” There are good comic moments, too, especially from MacCary, and a scene between Darvish and a small-town, park-bench gossip (Muñoz) is very amusing. Darvish also plays the mother of a slain man and in all his roles exhibits a vocally attractive performance, with a smooth, low resonance. But too much is choppy, elliptical, and confusing.

Director Cat Miller keeps the action moving, though at times the actors seem a bit stiff. Whether that is to reflect the stylization of the Noh originals is unclear, but the actors try their best to infuse flavors into what feels like a half-cooked goulash.

This Lingering Life plays at the HERE Arts Center through Oct. 4, with evening performances Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. and matinees on Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit www.here.org and click on Sublet Series shows, or call 866-811-4111.

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