There’s the Portland theater scene. And then there’s Imago. Although it’s one of the city’s most venerable theater organizations, Imago Theater has always operated artistically on the fringes of the tapestry that is Oregon theater. Founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle come from a mime theater tradition very different from the realist inclinations that have animated so much American theater in the past century.
Freed from some but not all financial constraints by its ownership of its historic building (including rehearsal and workshop space) and the annual success of crowd pleasing, family-friendly shows like Frogz and biglittlethings, Triffle and Mouawad have the luxury of experimenting with theatrical forms in their other shows. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it changes your way of seeing the stage — which is to say, as the Bard reminds us, the world.
It means that without conventional Western theater’s premium on realism, Imago (which means, in Latin, “image”) is all about stage magic. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get. And that makes the best Imago shows fascinating in a way unlike any others in Oregon.
Imago’s emphasis on image echoes a somewhat similar attitude in kabuki, the stylized theater form that originated in 17th century Japan and, thanks in part to novelist Yukio Mishima’s participation in its post World War II revival, is again popular today. Like the mask- and mime-oriented theater that Mouawad studied in his youth, kabuki relies on shifty identities and stage devices to comment on the often-deceptive reality outside the theater.
The happy confluence of two image -oriented dramatic traditions, kabuki and movement theater, animate Imago’s spiffy new production, The Black Lizard. Unlike Mouawad’s recent spate of silent plays that often brilliantly used movement and imagery alone to tell the story, this one, based on Mishima’s 1961 play, uses dialogue — but it’s still about image. Mouawad and Triffle chose their theater’s name because it “sounded good, looked good, and it was ambiguous,” Mouawad told me a few years ago. And ambiguity permeates The Black Lizard.
Several layers of intermediary interpretation refract our view of the source for the onstage action. There’s the gritty crime-drenched world of 1960s Tokyo or 1930s Los Angeles or San Francisco or whatever other sources of American pulp detective fiction and film noir inspired Edogawa Rampo’s 1930s Japanese pulp novel — which itself constitutes a second lens between us and the characters. Then there’s Mishima’s play (itself turned into a popular film) superimposed on that, and finally this new interpretation concocted by Mouawad and Portland State University professor of Japanese Larry Kominz, who has brought several fascinating Japanese performance projects to town over the years, from a translation by Mark Oshima.
Through these distorting, layered lenses, we gaze at what initially seems to be a standard pulp-style duel between the title character (astutely played by Anne Sorce), a master criminal of the sort seen in pulp fiction, cheesy science fiction flicks and even James Bond novels at least since the 1930s; and a world weary private detective, Akechi (the always compelling Matt DiBiasio) who’s trying to prevent her from stealing the biggest diamond in the country. The story — let’s call it a police satirical — ultimately depicts the Lizard as a kind of ruthless art collector, devoted to acquiring beauty, and also infatuated with her pursuer.
She pursues her obsession by being a mistress of disguises, during one cheeky chase scene assuming various identities in an ingenious shadow play montage. Even her nemesis/romantic interest Akechi gains the upper hand at a crucial moment via disguise. After the usual kabuki-stye, slow-boil start, the show whisks us away on a dazzling tour of swinging ’60s Tokyo, then shifts to a steamer and fortress of solitude where the Black Lizard harbors her most bizarre ultimate secret.
But the pulpy plot itself isn’t really what Mishima, Kominz, or Mouawad are interested in, and the story isn’t what makes The Black Lizard such a kick. What tickles the audience’s fancy is the clever, layered way the creators combine evocative non-realistic action, movement, scenic and sound design to make this spoof of its source material a play about disguise itself rather than what’s underneath. They play with the conventions and images of pulp fiction, and draw chuckles and delight not from the characters or story themselves, but instead from how others have depicted them and the way we view them.
Suiting the 1960s look, DiBiasio doesn’t play his wry private dick straight, but more like Adam West’s campy TV Batman — exaggerated just so, but in a cool rather than overheated way. Resplendent in period evening gowns, Sorce strikes a perfect balance between cool camp and pulpy melodrama — the play rides on her tattooed shoulders. When, toward the end, her studied cool finally wavers, it’s for a dramatic reason that restores a little human sympathy to an otherwise cartoonish (in the best sense) portrayal. Subsidiary characters underline the darkly comical freak show concept, except for DiBiasio’s sidekick, whose mostly realistic take makes the rest of the proceedings’ unreality stand out in contrast.
That manga-style backdrop that gazes down on the stage and the audience suggests the winking attitude Mouawad and company maintain, as do Sumi Wu’s costumes, Dan Meeker’s smart sets and John Berendzen’s amplified sound design (the Liminal theater composer replaces Imago’s usual sound artist Katie Griesar in this production), with effects by Kyle Delamarter.
It takes real effort to maintain such a delicately nuanced balance of interpretative portrayals, and some actors sometimes let the mask slip a bit. A couple of otherwise brilliant interpolated wordless dance interludes featuring an impassive trio of kimono-clad geishas stretch on too long, with too little variety, and working out the plot contrivances and a distracting romantic subplot occasionally slackens the focus. But overall The Black Lizard makes an utterly delightful evening of theater — not reality. Imago has always known that the biggest disguise in theater is theater itself. It’s all about images, which, as Imago enchantingly continues to remind us, turn out to be at least as interesting as what lies beneath.
Paul Schrader’s 1983 film Mishima also played with tension between stage image and reality.
The Black Lizard continues through June 2 at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave., Portland.