Run, Melos: Theater Review by Matt Perkins

Run, Melos: Theater Review by Matt Perkins
6/7~6/9 at Culture Hall, Minami Civic Center (Bunka Hall, Minami Shimin Center), Fukuoka City
Directed by Erica Yamada

It is hard to find a high school graduate in Japan who doesn’t remember Osamu Dazai’s Hashire Melos from their literature classes. Melos, a naïve shepherd boy who is captured for trying to murder a tyrannical king, is given three days pardon before his execution in order to see his sister’s wedding. There is one condition; he has to leave his friend Selinutius behind as a hostage. In creating the play Run, Melos, director Erica Yamada refused to do away with the text, which she projects in Chinese characters onto black screens which open out to face the audience like a book. But she entangles Dazai’s tale with her own ideas to produce a complete re-telling. Run,Melos presents a peculiar world where its moving statues sometimes seem like they’re struggling to finish a marathon deep underwater, and sometimes like they’re dancing in the rain. In creating its mini-epic, the play mixes together themes as diverse as Greco-Roman concepts of heroism, the 2011Tōhoku Tsunami, sculpture and human shame. The international audience at the Hong Kong Small Theatre Big Drama festival, where Run, Melos will play later in the summer, will be pleased with the way the piece delivers its clever messages without long speeches. Knotty and full of ideas, Run,Melos is an ambitious, impressive piece of small theater.

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’Brother, are you okay?’: Melos arrives at his sister’s wedding

Why stage a story which must strike many Japanese students, who often study the text at high school, as dry and old fashioned? For Erica Yamada there was a personal connection. Osamu Dazai grew up in Aomori, a coastal town in a region heavily affected by the Tsunami, where her father was also born. It is on the same coast where Osamu Dazai threw himself into sea. Yamada wondered if it was an attempt to become a hero like Melos. His suicide did turn him into a kind of literary monument. She also couldn’t escape from thinking about the 2011 Tsunami, which struck while she was at work on Run, Melos. There is a lot of water present in Dazai’s text and in her play, sometimes as a river obstructing the hero’s path, or as the elixir of life which sets him back on the road. In her production, the sound of natural running water could be heard offstage as the play began. Just as she felt she was giving the classical statues of Dazai’s fable their own voices, she couldn’t help feeling that she was also trying to give a voice to the real bodies still underwater off the coast of Japan.

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Human statues: Melos before the King

The fact that Run, Melos is so full of ideas might explain why the cast and the set were dressed up so busily almost to the point of confusion. Even as the audience were coming in, we could already see that the stage was thick with detail. The actors, who were painted white, gold and silver like human statues, were arranged around a hay pile which resembled a totem pole. A man with a bamboo sword, which also looked like a crucifix, was slumped against it. Sitting in a round wooden bathtub or upturned drum reminiscent of the instruments of Noh plays, was a woman in a blonde wig which looked like it had been filched from the props cupboard for a German opera. In Japanese you might describe the abundance of detail as thick, in the same way you’d describe coffee as thick, or strong (koi). Fortunately, in keeping to the simple plot of the text, the play could be stretched to accommodate the company’s thoughtful interpretations of, and additions to, the material.

Melos was played energetically by Hirokyuki Seguchi. Often silent, he had the playful naiveté of Charlie Chaplain and, when he did make a noise, it was to break into shrill cries of sorrow or to laugh madly. He carried himself with the heavy jointed stiffness of a sculpture come to life. The reason the cast of Run, Melos were made to move in such an affected way was by a strange coincidence. Yamada happened to see, in an inflight magazine, a picture of ‘The Silent Evolution’ by the English artist Jason Taylor in which 400 stone sculptures of ordinary people hand been sunk below the sea. The picture she saw in the magazine had itself been poking up out of the seat-back pocket in front of her. It instantly reminded her of Melos. The play’s stone puppets stir up a surprising amount of sympathy as well as awe. Melos became gradually more dishevelled and his legs quivered and shook with the effort of standing. His eyes looked weak, he dripped with sweat, his mouth hung with spit and tears ran down his face. At one point he vomited up a red cloth of blood. When he reached his friend, hanging on a cross, on the evening of the third day, he could hardly speak, and we could hardly hear him.

Leaving aside the clever labyrinth of ideas behind the drama, the play was a visual and joyful piece of infectiously energetic entertainment, rarely letting up between moments of physical inventiveness, songs and stage effects. Gestures gave way to songs almost by accident. Melos, waving his arms from side to side in lazy flapping motion sang ‘bura bura’, playing on double meanings of ‘to swing’ and ‘to wander aimlessly’ before he was joined by the other actors who turned his mumblings into a song, all jumping and clapping in time to lighting changes. When Melos set off from his sister’s wedding to run home, the lights cut out and words in Chinese kanji characters were projected onto his running body giving the impression he was running down an urban street, passing street light after street light. It all felt neat and fine-tuned and while the songs were dark, bleak and minimal they did produce as warm a rush in your gut as any a big American musical could.

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A jaunty tune

The play also had its memorable quieter moments. During the scenes at his sister’s wedding we saw Melos, surrounded by invisible marriage guests, with his face contorted in a mask of happiness. He waved at faraway friends in the crowded space, distractedly turning from invisible guest to guest. His sister, played by Masumi Mosa who excels at hilariously large goggle-eyed expressions, was also very adept at assuming the poise of an old fashioned Japanese bride. She stood behind the drum as it collected rain water falling from a metal showerhead. She danced dreamily and sang a song which I was told would have reminded Japanese audience members of visits to shrines or marriage ceremonies. Later, having beaten back bandits and jumped a fast-flowing river, Melos collapsed to the floor. He was terrified he would return home to find his friend dead. His sister, or a woman like her, returned singing once more, gently splashing at water in the drum, making the sound of a boat drawing her closer to the bank where Melos was resting, her voice getting louder and louder. Melos took a sip of water and, his strength revived, began his strange jerky run once more.

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Enviable loyalty: Melos and Selinutius

At the moment Melos almost gave up running, he spoke about feeling average, and not like a hero at all. Shame and weakness clearly held a fascination for Dazai who may have written Run, Melos after a less than heroic episode in his own life. He had gone to enjoy himself in an onsen town, most likely to fool around with geishas and have indulgent parties. His friend Dan Kazuo was sent by Dazai’s wife to fetch his friend home. Kazuo found Dazai in the midst of a steamy party. The pair fell into trouble together, ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay off their debts. Dazai set off for Tokyo to borrow money from another friend, leaving the hapless Kazuo as hostage at the inn. Unlike Melos, Dazai didn’t come running back to save his friend; instead Kazuo had to chase him down to Tokyo, where he eventually found the author of Run, Melos playing chess. Erica Yamada knows this story well. It must have encouraged her to add and enlarged the grotesque aspects to the original tale. Yamada, as in other works, has one of her characters mime the act of eating onstage; in Run, Melos it is the sister at her wedding. People who are eating, in Run, Melos and in other Space Giga productions, do so with a compulsive, joyless chomping which draws attention to their grossness. Even the high emotions in the play, which could be moving in their way, could also irritate. When Melos and his friend were hugging and crying, it felt insincere and over melodramatic. The king, played by Nobuyuki Gomi, moved his face in an expression which stood halfway between simpering, heart-melting remorse and a sense of not knowing where to look. As sobs filled the hall, the audience may have felt the same. These surprising decisions to undermine the nobility of Dazai’s fable made the play all the more compelling, if deliberately less easy to watch. Erica Yamada believes in having her audience on the edge of their seats, and sometimes achieves this by teasing and frustrating them. She is proud that her dramas differ in this way from TV or cinema. She enjoys having physical bodies to paint and twist, to make dance, yell and whoop in all their gawky shamefulness.
Run, Melos will appear in the 2013 Small Theatre Big Drama Asia Dialogue festival and will be performed in Hong Kong on June 22nd and 23rd.

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Run, Melos
Original Story: Osamu Dazai
Director and Composer: Erica Yamada (Space GIGA Theatre Troupe)

Cast
Melos: Hiroyuki Seguchi (Greco Roman Style)
King (Dionysus): Nobuyuki Gomi (Muhosha)
Sister: Masumi Mosa (Space GIGA Theatre Troupe)
Selinuntius: Takuya Ikee

(Photos from http://www.facebook.com/meros.fukuoka/photos_stream)

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Interested in Fukuoka’s theater scene? Read Matt’s full Theater Guide for information on venues, festivals, websites, resources and more theater reviews here>>> Fukuoka Theater Guide.

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