By Sarah Arehart, University of Chicago Center for East Asian Studies
The first thing you’ll notice about Nori Sawa is that he breaks the rules of traditional theater. In Fairy Tales, he breaks all of them, in 55 minutes.
Nori is a master of figural theater. Where a puppeteer operates characters from the shadows, Nori steps into the spotlight. He manipulates and is manipulated by his puppets, sometimes becoming a character in the story himself.
He also breaks the fourth wall, chatting amiably with the audience from the very beginning. His airy banter in between sketches is not memorized patter, it’s spontaneous story-telling. Nori’s fairy tales are performed without English dialogue. Instead, you’re likely to hear muffled Japanese, Czech, or fantastical made-up languages that help tell the story. He does costume changes on stage, gives thumbs-ups to the techs in the sound booth, and will not hesitate to tell the audience that the more they like the show the longer he’ll make it last.
It’s completely delightful. But more than that, by breaking the rules Nori Sawa creates a feeling of camaraderie with the audience that almost allows you to forget the darkness that fairy tales contain. In interviews, Nori often refers to the light and shadow—both literal and figural—to be found in theater.
In his work as an instructor in Theater Arts at DAMU, the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Nori encourages his students to experiment with combining traditional elements of puppetry to break boundaries and explore new territories in theater. He frequently travels overseas to lead workshops on figural theater, shadow puppetry, Japanese Bunraku puppetry, and more.
While his repertoire of performances includes shows geared towards children, Nori has also developed solo interpretations of classic plays such as Macbeth and The Cherry Orchard. Within the framework of these tales familiar to Western audiences, Nori layers additional meanings drawn from his home in Sapporo, Japan. Playing the part of Macbeth, Nori manipulates and is manipulated by the puppet of Lady Macbeth, who wears a stunning kimono cut from fabric belonging to Nori’s mother. Using Japanese fabric and construction techniques, Nori creates a physical presence of Japan in his characters, bringing a unique blend of cultures to the stage.
The audience of Fairy Tales will get to experience the full range of Nori’s talents. They will enjoy themselves so much that they might not notice the subtlety that Nori weaves into his performances. Whether it’s a drunk old man sniffing out a baby rabbit or a tortoise who gets revenge on the hare, Nori’s fairy tales deftly weave their way through light and shadow, reminding us that illumination and darkness are always intertwined.
Josephine Louis Theater, Northwestern University, May 9 - 12, daytime and evening performances available.
Tags: Stages 2012, Nori Sawa, puppet, fairy tale, figure, figural, Japan, Czech, story