On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
Walking around in New York, it’s frequently possible to catch at least fleeting glimpses of a long-ago past – the carvings on the cornices of an elegant building, perhaps, or a seemingly eternal Italian restaurant, or even just the dark view up a subway tunnel, if there’s not too much graffiti in the spot where you’re looking. “Long ago” is obviously a relative term, though, and what counts for distant times here are nothing compared to the long memories attached to many cities elsewhere. But in Chiori Miyagawa’s striking, paradox-filled new play Thousand Years Waiting, which just opened at PS 122, NYC links up with ancient Japan in a way that feels unexpectedly natural yet also strange. It’s a conversation across centuries and across cultures that makes you aware of your place in time now even as it reaches back to a world you may not have been really aware of before entering the theater.
The central character in the play is the Lady Sarashina (Sophia Skiles), a real woman who lived about a thousand years ago in Japan and wrote a memoir toward the end of her life that was eventually published as The Sarashina Diary (it’s long out of print). But we see her because of another woman, in modern times (Margi Douglas), who finds an old copy of that diary; as she reads and imagines Sarashina’s life, Skiles and Anna Wilson, who plays several roles, bring it to life. The third strand of the story is the definitely-not-out-of-print Tale of Genji, considered the world’s first novel, which was written not long before Sarashina lived and chronicles a Japanese prince’s romantic escapades. Sarashina reads it as a young girl and fantasizes about meeting the people it describes, and, in a meta twist, just as her story is being acted in response to the modern woman’s reading of her diary, scenes from Genji’s life are acted out as the imagined Sarashina reads, with Wilson transforming herself into the prince. He seems that much more real to the young girl when her family moves to Kyoto, where Genji would have lived. This process of moving and the major cognitive changes it involves then link back to Douglas’ character, who is moving from her little Southern town to the Big Apple, and finding the experience as elating and challenging as most anyone who’s ever done it has known it to be.
In addition to being something of a dance-play – there are numerous short segments in which the performers just move silently and gracefully together to evoke the flow of life in both the ancient and modern worlds – the play features Masaya Kiritake, who is a master of Otome Bunraku, a kind of puppetry developed in the early 20th century for women to do since they weren’t allowed to do regular Bunraku. One disappointing thing about it is that Kiritake and the doll she performs with get only a little stage time. When they are on, they’re mesmerizing; the doll, though tiny, is extremely lifelike and impressively responsive to Kiritake’s delicate motions. Kiritake herself more or less disappears behind the doll, even when she’s not shrouded by the doll’s gauzy dress – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say she is sort of one with the doll, and the doll is in front, so you focus on the doll. In any case, I found these sequences to be much the highlight of the show for their elegant otherworldliness, and I wished there were more of them. This is not to say the live actors aren't good – far from it, they take on their roles with aplomb, particularly Wilson in the part of Genji – but Kiritake’s art is so unusual and arresting.
Along with the multiple layers of storytelling, there are a couple of conceptual themes that come up over the course of the play, though they are more evoked or noted rather than meditated upon at length. One of these is the power of reading; another, as the title indicates, is that of waiting, of time’s too-quick passage as we yearn for a dream to be fulfilled or for something just to happen to us. The link between medieval Japan and 21st century New York, the idea of which is part of what attracted me to the show, could have been played up more – the modern woman’s story is mostly left untold. It’s easy to read a lot into her life and character by connecting them to her reading of the Sarashina Diary, but I was hoping for a bit stronger balance between the tales. On the other hand, sometimes less is more, and the simple experience of watching these stories from ages ago gracefully being brought to life, supplemented by the gorgeous puppetry, in the tiny black box theater at PS 122 where noises from the bustling New York streets seep through the walls, go a long way toward establishing the connection all on its own and making the play a unique, engaging experience.
Thousand Years Waiting is at PS 122, 150 First Ave., through March 12. Shows are Wed.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. & Sun. 4:30pm. Tickets via Theatermania.