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A Girl of 16

Magin Schantz in A Girl of 16
(Photo © Josh Fox)
One of the most widely known of contemporary Japanese novels, Beauty and Sadness, by the late Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, concerns a writer's lifelong connection to a woman with whom he has an affair when she is 16 and he is twice her age. After growing up to become a successful painter living in an isolated province, assisted by a female protegée, the woman remains devastated by the novel he wrote about their affair, titled A Portrait of a Girl of Sixteen. The protegée becomes involved with both the writer and his son, leading to Kawabata's stark dissection of age and youth, disillusionment and passion, order and chaos in elegant, spare prose.

Kawabata's work has been adapted to the stage and film before, normally with great reverence, but Aya Ogawa has some things to say about this classic book. On her own and as associate artistic director of the International WOW Theater Company, Ogawa has created theater on both sides of the Pacific, including work on the recent downtown epic The Bomb with WOW co-founder Josh Fox. She is now directing her script of A Girl of 16, which she describes as a response to Beauty and Sadness. The production is at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side.

In this work of visual beauty and formal originality, Ogawa tells Kawabata's story while attempting to reinvent it. Though she is not always successful, the effort is more stimulating than many other theater companies' hits and an impressive example of Ogawa's artistic ambition. Her uncluttered directorial sensibility here contrasts with collaborator Fox's baroque, overloaded approach, but both artists would benefit from more self-discipline. Their best moments come when they apply themselves to problems of character and narrative, trusting that their gorgeous stage painting will never be overlooked.

As for that painting, its most prominent brushstroke is the use of hooded actors who dance and act as visible stagehands for the protagonists, refracting the Kabuki concept of Kuroki through Lecoq. Spare sets (attributed to no designer) before white curtains evoke traditional Japanese painting and the novel's elliptical style; though this approach melds well with the other directorial choices, the production as a whole feels self-conscious at times. But there are only a few truly cringe-inducing moments -- a commendable achievement, given that these artists have taken on material that even The Wooster Group would find challenging.

Beauty and Sadness is an almost pathologically male-centered narrative in which the females are wounded peripherals. Ogawa assails that perspective while retaining the novel's structure, yet she doesn't fully humanize her new protagonist -- the artist's protegée, renamed Noemi (Magin Schantz). In the novel, the character is a half-mad nymph and an inscrutable man-hater, a young painter so passionate that her body trembles when she works. She is also a tortured soul who has spent time in padded rooms. Here, she comes off as ditzy and silly but one can't imagine her having been committed for anything other than Attention Deficit Disorder. On the other hand, there are some terrific moments between Schantz as Noemi and Peter Lettre as Henry Grey, the writer's son. Had Noemi's madness been explored more deeply in the play, the center of the story's universe might have been relocated. Regardless, we are treated to a well directed set of scenes in which Noemi prods each of her lovers to obsessively pursue their alienated passions.

Dario Tangelson and Magin Schantz
(Photo © Josh Fox)
Ogawa is clearly haunted by this book, and not only because it is insidiously idolatrous of the male gaze; however, her response sometimes amounts to staging the book's flaws and ditching its redeeming aspects. For instance, the gravitas of Kawabata's narrator-protagonist, a reflective, mournful writer here renamed Hugo Grey (Dario Tangelson), is replaced with a tinny ego that gives the actor only one note to sound, which he does with relative subtlety. As the painter whose affair with him at the age of 16 gives rise to the story's events, Erika Hildebrandt suffers believably, yet the character never achieves individuality. Ogawa's deconstructive approach works best with the writer's wife (Deborah Wallace) because that character is so peripheral to begin with.

Although Ogawa's take on this classic novel by a Nobel laureate is not always successful, it's notable for the writer-director's stunning visual sense, her often adept hand at dialogue, and her gift for creating natural moments between actors in the midst of strange, jarring rhythms. The knotty old issues of narrative and character take time to solve and WOW has not done so here, but the company is well worth following every step of the way.

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