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Beate Hein Bennett

Three Letters--One Tragedy.
“The Hunting Gun”

March 16 -- April 15, 2023
Presented at Baryshnikov Art Center (BAC), Jerome Robbins Theater
450 W. 37th Str., New York, NY
Produced by Emanuela Barilla in cooperation with BAC
Tues – Sat. at 7:30 PM, Sun. at 2 PM
Tickets: $40.29 - $160 incl. fees, boxoffice@bacnyc.org
Performed in Japanese with English supertitles.
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett March 21, 2023

Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

Three letters, four human beings, living with interwoven fates and secrets in emotional isolation from each other. The individual dramas unfold with each letter. Yosuke Misugi, the central but silent male character, performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, reads these letters from the three women in whose lives he was enmeshed for thirteen years: his wife Midori; his mistress Saiko; and Shoko, his teenage daughter by Saiko. Each letter is spoken by the woman who wrote it to him, and with each letter the individual drama is revealed. Miki Nakatani performs each woman’s tragedy with individualized physical and vocal articulation that project the collective drama beyond any language barrier. Of course, the English supertitles help in following the circumstances of each life and each woman’s reflections about those circumstances, but it is the performances that manifest the profound solitude of each character within the intimacy of their relationship.

Despite the title, “The Hunting Gun”, the gun is never shot. The play is based on the 1949 novel by Yasushi Inoue. Adapted for the stage by Serge Lamothe and directed by French-Canadian director, Francois Girard, this production is an evocation of the intricate emotions caused by intimate interrelationships and events. Set designer Francois Seguin and lighting designer David Finn create a stunningly beautiful environment in the cavernous stage space through the use of quintessential aesthetic elements in Japanese design—water, stone, wood, and lotus blossoms, all in a wash of sculpting light. The upstage space, on an elevated level, is the domain of Josuke Misugi; he is behind a scrim covered with Japanese writing, sometimes seen vaguely, depending on the content focus in the letter as it is performed. The male figure is lit in such a way that he appears and disappears or is seen only partially behind the scrim. Before and throughout the performance a subtle low-key soundscape, composed by Alexander MacSween, washes like gentle waves under the words of the performer. Simple elegant costumes designed by Renee April add interesting, even unexpected aspects to each female figure.

I do not understand Japanese, but Nakatani’s fast pace of speaking in contrast to her delicate slow, sometimes languid movements create a strange tension between the man Josuki in the background and each woman as she articulates her story. Mikhail Baryshnikov is seen first in well-lit profile behind the scrim. Dressed in the modern clothes of a professional man, he is standing by his desk cleaning a hunting gun with a white cloth-- his face is expressionless but with his entire body in total concentration, he wipes the long gun in excruciatingly slow motion.

A few seconds later out of the dark space below the man behind the scrim, a young girl with braids, wearing a school uniform, appears wading in the square pool filled with white lotus blossoms floating in the ankle deep water. As she addresses her letter to the man above, she moves slowly and almost noiselessly through the water, every now and then lighting an incense stick planting it among the water lilies—bits of smoke and the aroma float over the water. This is a ritual in honor of her mother’s recent death. The girl’s letter reveals that she had read in her mother’s diary about the relationship with Josuke, the father she never knew and had met only fleetingly at her mother’s funeral.

Miki Nakatani. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Miki Nakatani's portrayal of the three women is a phenomenal tour de force of acting. Her school girl is full of the pain of her mother’s death and self-accusation of a “sin” the girl does not understand. Her plaintive voice quivers at times and at times she awkwardly looks up towards the man as though waiting for a response that won’t come. Then, with her back to the audience, Nakatani sheds her school uniform and turns around in a modern red cocktail dress—now she is the wife, Midori. In her monologue she flings her fury, her frustration, and her private triumphs at the man. Her voice and her movements are now full of provocative force, as we learn her story and her awareness of the relationship between Josuke and Saiko who is actually her older cousin. Finally in another shedding of dress, Midori changes into Saiko. A wooden box descends from above containing a white kimono. She pins Midori’s loose hair into a chignon, and as she speaks her letter with her back to the man, she puts on the white traditional kimono in slow ceremonial movements. Saiko is the elegant Japanese woman, calm like a statue, speaking in the formalistic quiet style of the onagata, the female performer of Japanese classical No theater. It is through her letter that we find out the deeper nuances of the love affair and its corollary of passion, betrayal, and “sin.” She speaks as a ghost, dressed in her white funeral kimono: “When you read this letter, I will be no longer among the living.” The three letters each in its own voice reveal the deep irony of isolation in intimacy—a profound human reality.


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