In bygone days, tradition held that a worker of long service and good standing, upon retirement would receive a token of appreciation – stereotypically, a gold watch with which to track your now idle hours.
Laurence Kominz retired last July from Portland State University after four decades there as a professor of Japanese language, literature, drama, and film, and received his share of honorifics, including one from the Consulate Office of Japan in Portland – the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon – for his contributions to the introduction of Japanese culture in the U.S.
But true to the passion and dedication that earned him such an award, Kominz wants to be the one bestowing gifts. Ever since he arrived at PSU, fresh from earning his Ph.D. at Columbia University under the tutelage of renowned Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene, Kominz has presented productions of Japanese theater at the school. So despite being officially retired, he’s working tirelessly to present one last grand production this weekend, calling it his gift to the school and the city that he made his home.
“Maybe I’m a proselytizer for this art, I don’t know,” he says, sitting in a cafe across from Lincoln Performance Hall, where he’s staging The Adventures of High Priest Kôchi. “I really want people to remember this as something remarkable.”
Continuing his tradition of presenting Japanese stage literature in English, The Adventures of High Priest Kôchi is the first Kabuki adaptation of the 1685 puppet story “Kochi Hoin Godenki.” The original was long believed to be lost to history, until a copy was discovered at the British Museum Library in 1962 and later brought back to the stage in Japan. That work, however, was for Banraku, a form of puppet theater. Kominz instead has both translated the original story into English and adapted it to the thrilling stylistic conventions of Japan’s popular 400-year-old Kabuki theater, famed for its symbolically colorful makeup and equally bold-stroke storytelling.
And he’s pulling out all the stops for this one – a $37,000 budget, a cast of more than 30 actors, puppeteers and musicians, gorgeous traditional costumes, projection designs of classic ukiyo-e prints from Japan’s storied Edo period, and so on.
Kominz directs the production and – though the performers mostly are undergrad and graduate students (including a few exchange students from Tokyo’s Waseda University) – Kominz takes a key role, chanting/singing the narration, accompanied by musicians on the lute-like shamisen.
Kominz grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but his long fascination with Japanese culture has roots in his teen years, when his family lived in Tokyo from 1966 to ‘68 while his father worked there as a scientist.
“I hadn’t studied more than a Berlitz book while I lived there,” he recalls. “I was the oldest of three children and my parents said, ‘OK, Larry: It’s your job to get your siblings out and around and home safely. Here’s a Japanese phrase book. Make it happen.’ As a 16-year-old, that was very exciting.”
Several years later, back in Japan on a college year abroad in Kyoto, he discovered the great Japanese theater forms – Noh, Kabuki, Banraku, and Kyogen.
Kabuki in particular caught his attention. As he recently told the website The Mainichi: “The actors’ vocal power and physical expressiveness were beyond anything I’d seen on the stage in the USA, including in Broadway plays.”
He dove in. “I would do my best to get translations, and then I discovered that there were ways to study these forms as an amateur,” he told me.
Kominz admits that when he first came to PSU he didn’t expect to stay so long. “My friends thought, ‘We’re Columbia grads. We’ll make our way back to the (Ivy League) or someplace like that in a few years.” But a mentor named Jim Brandon, who had worked at such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center and who Kominz calls the foremost director of Kabuki in English, advised him to stay put: “He said, ‘If you move around, you won’t know how things work at a university. If you want to do big things, stay there and figure out how it works, who to talk to, who can help you.’”
That help came not just within the university but around the city. Kominz’ mission to spread Japanese stage literature has resulted not just in a long string of shows at PSU, but also in collaborations with local professional companies such as Imago, where he worked on adaptations of works by the 20th-century novelist and Kabuki playwright Yukio Mishima; and Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage, where he contributed to Kabuki Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
The Adventures of High Priest Kochi is based on the story of the Buddhist monk Kōchi Hōin, a wealthy playboy who, after the death of his wife, seeks to redeem himself by practicing a form of austerity so severe that it leads to death and self-mummification. But the story itself isn’t so austere, Rather, it’s shot through with passion and violence, demons and ghosts, its interplay of the sacred and the profane culminating in what Kominz calls an epiphany of Buddhist principles.
If Kominz has his wish, it’ll be a story that haunts your memory.
The flattened stage
For those unfamiliar with the form, here are a few quick primers on Kabuki:
Portland Playhouse has brought together an impressive group of artists – including the brilliant jazz pianist/composer/teacher/activist Darrell Grant – to devise a multi-disciplinary, multi-part performance they call The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement. Described as a “protest journey” and an “immersive exploration, told through the rhythms and movements of the African diaspora,” the show is arranged into different movements on different nights of the week – “Chaos,” “Baptism & Rebirth,” etc. Its premise and its stated aim to be “transformative” both suggest an implicitly political approach to cultural offering.
Also, the Playhouse describes the show as “participatory.” I guess you gotta move in order to be moved.
Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Festival features a new musical by Ernie Lijoi, The Pursuit of Happiness. If that title sounds straightforward and conventional, the subtitle “…Or the Wacky Lesbian Adventures of Brillo Pad and Hula Hoop” suggests otherwise. The story involves couples divulging secrets under the threat of a nuclear annihilation that never comes, leaving their revelations as the real bombshells. With Fuse’s usual commitment to queer experience, the show “investigates the intricacies of transitioning, coming out, gender dysphoria, social pressure, and the ways we all try to be someone we’re not.” Lijoi, who also performs in the show, has been a standout actor and writer for the company, and direction and choreography here by Rusty Tennant just makes this an even more promising proposition.
Last month, Triangle Productions staged part one of Matthew Lopez’s sprawling play The Inheritance, a loose transliteration of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End into the milieu of gay, upper-middle-class New Yorkers circa 2016. Now comes The Inheritance, Part 2, which isn’t a stand-alone story but shouldn’t be difficult to follow without having seen the first installment. In any case, the pleasures here are less about a powerful narrative engine, so to speak, than where the road trip goes. There is a compelling story, but it rolls out in a discursive fashion amid scenes of domestic squabbles, lifestyle aspirations, political discussions and so on. It also matters who’s driving the car – if we can stretch our metaphor; part one rode on the assured performances of Michael Teuffel and James Sharinghousen as the central couple, and featured a monologue by Gary Norman of devastating emotional sensitivity. Here’s hoping for more marvels as the story heads to its conclusion.
Visiting Portland State this week to learn about the aforementioned Kabuki production, I also ran into an old friend, Richard Wattenberg, a theater professor and my former colleague in the reviewing trenches of The Oregonian. Set to retire soon, Wattenberg, like Kominz, is directing his last production at the school: A Dream Play, August Strindberg’s turn-of-the-20th-century fantasy meditation on human suffering, presented in an adaptation by Caryl Churchill that was first staged in 2005.
Carol Triffle’s decidedly off-kilter musical Where’s Bruno? Is the sort of captivating little curiosity that perhaps only her Imago Theatre could make. In this case, maybe it’s not so much a rough-hewn gem as just a cool hunk of rock, but it’s fun to look at all the same. As with much of Triffle’s work in recent years, this show is so idiosyncratic that I’m not sure where she’s coming from; the style is peculiarly halting, the tone flitting between ennui and whimsy. Yet Triffle continues to find actors who can inhabit her sense of wry ambiguity and comically awkward physicality, such as Imago veteran Kyle Delamarter, who plays the restlessly idle musician Bruno, and Briana Ratterman Trevithick, a hoot here as the ghost of the late lead singer of Bruno’s formerly popular band. Plus, there’s the ghost of Elvis, so how can you lose?
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon “spins a visually sumptuous fantasy from Chinese folklore,” wrote ArtsWatch poobah Bob Hicks in his review, which praised the “nice sympatico” of the leading actors (Samson Syharath, Madeleine Tran, Beatriz Abella, and Jeremy Abe) but even more so the “fabulist movement” created by choreographer Minh Tran and the rich array of design and technical work that make the show especially captivating.
Even happy new beginnings must have their end, and so the first show in The Judy, Northwest Children’s Theatre’s new downtown home – “Elephant & Piggie’s ‘We Are in a Play!'” – closes this weekend. No doubt there’ll be many more brisk entertainments and life lessons for young ones, but why not get in on this charming kick-off?
The best line I read this week
“It extended to Miguel Almiron, sprinting like there was a sale on sprinting itself.”
– from an article by George Caulkin and Jacob Whitehead for The Athletic, on the spirited play of Newcastle United, a long-woeful Premier League Team enjoying an historic resurgence.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.