Eastern Experience: Pittsburgh Examines Japanese Culture, Art

By Carter, Alice T. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Eastern Experience: Pittsburgh Examines Japanese Culture, Art


Carter, Alice T., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


If the thought of attending Noh drama makes you want to just say no, maybe you should talk to Mae Smethurst first.

The oldest of the three forms of Japanese theater Noh drama has been continuously performed since its beginning in the 15thcentury.

Nevertheless "Aoi no Ue," the classic Noh play that will have a single performance at the Charity Randall Theatre Friday night, is as familiar as the evening's news, Smethurst says.

"An astronaut who drove 900 miles to get revenge is the kind of story we're talking about," she says.

"Aoi no Ue" is the tale of Lady Rokujo, a woman spurned who becomes a demon seeking revenge from the woman who the stole her lover, Prince Genji.

The play is the centerpiece of an evening of performances by the respected Noh performer Hisa Uzawa and the troupe of Noh actors she put together for a U.S. tour, packaged under the collective title "Noh at Night."

The evening also includes a short dance segment from "Hagoromo," ("The Feather Robe") another Noh play, about a man who discovers a beautiful feather robe on a beach.

The robe belongs to an angel who needs it to return to heaven. The man promises to return the robe if she will dance for him.

Smethurst is a professor of classics and an adjunct professor of East Asian Language and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, has spent more than three decades studying this form of Japanese drama. She has written three books on Noh drama. She and her husband, Richard Smethurst, a University of Pittsburgh professor of modern Japanese history lived in Japan for 16 years.

During their time in Japan both Smethursts have developed a fondness for Noh drama.

"He dragged me to Japan and I dragged him to Noh," she says.

"I believe I am the professor of the economic history of Japan who has seen the most plays," Richard Smethurst adds.

It's an acquired taste, Richard Smethurst says.

"But if you like string quartets or small group jazz, for me (Noh) has the same effect."

Those who attend Friday night's performance should not go expecting an evening of fast-paced action or the high-flying gymnastics of Chinese opera or kung-fu movies.

Over its six or seven centuries of existence, this longest continually performed form of theater has developed into a stylized, ritualized form performed with minimal scenery and props. In some plays a fan can be used to represent a weapon, a saki cup or a pipe.

A pine tree, real or painted, is always placed upstage at the back of the playing area. To the sides of the stage bamboo is painted. Actors enter stage right across a bridge that connects to the backstage area. Simple objects and shapes can represent a tree, a hut or a boat.

"Noh is very slow. If you take a video of it and fast forward it, it looks normal," Mae Smethurst explains. "It would help the audience to know that in Noh the feet are supposed to stay on the stage as much as possible, which is different from the West. Here you want to maintain contact."

Despite -- or even more because of -- the ways in which Noh differs from Western drama, Point Breeze resident and avid theater- goer Elizabeth Seamans is looking forward to attending the "Noh at Night" performance.

"I'm most likely to go to something that's a little more interesting than standard plays," says Seamans, who counts less- traditional companies such as Quantum Theatre among her preferences.

"Those are the things that float my boat," Seamans says. "Noh is in that category."

Noh drama offers visual appeal in he costumes are magnificent and masks. Three actors in "Aoi no Ue" will wear masks in their portrayals of a distraught woman, a medium and a demon.

"Music is important to the movements of the performers," Richard Smethurst says. "Drummers make calls, sounds and this tells the actor where he or she should be.

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