The special style and flavor of the Suzuki Company of Toga, currently playing in the Terrace Theater, can almost be summarized in the rape and infanticide scenes that follow close upon one another midway through "The Trojan Women."
The play is presented in a wildly elaborated mixture of dramatic techniques. The rape is brutally realistic in action but muted by the staging. There is no question at all about what is going on, but the scene reaches its climax in a dark and rather remote corner of the stage, partly screened from the audience's view by figures not involved in that part of the story. The scene's impact is finally strengthened by leaving details to the imagination.
The infanticide is staged front and center and well illuminated, but it is obvious that the villain's sword is not hacking a real child, only a featureless rag doll -- a symbol. What is being snuffed out is not a single child but all the hopes, all the future of a once proud city-state.
The woman being raped is Andromache, widow of the warrior-prince Hector, whose strong right arm kept the Greek invaders out of Troy during a 10-year siege. The murdered child is Hector's son Astyanax. And the play is one of the most problematic by Euripides, the enfant terrible of classical Greek tragedy, made even more problematic in a modern Japanese adaptation by Tadashi Suzuki, the enfant terrible of experimental theater in Japan. Culture shock is compounded, the Trojan War overlaid with World War II. A recorded sound track blends the noises of war (ancient and modern) with traditional Japanese music and contemporary rock. The dialogue is in a language that most Americans find impenetrable. Inevitably, the question must be raised: Why should anyone go to see a show like this?
The answer is that most people shouldn't. "The Trojan Women" is a play for connoisseurs of unusual styles in acting and stage direction, for those who are willing to do some homework ahead of time, or to arrive early and study the program's detailed summary of what happens. Lacking fluency in Japanese, even these patrons will grasp only a fraction of what is being presented, as the players shift from one role to another, the setting shifts from ancient Troy to modern Japan, and the dialogue pours out in an eloquent but unintelligible stream of raw emotion. But for those with adventurous tastes, this fraction can be a uniquely intense theatrical experience.
The source material, Euripides' play, is not a tragedy in the style of "Oedipus" or "Medea." Rather than a plot, it presents an elegy for losers. It is like a documentary on what it means to be defeated and powerless, with the chorus (as usual in Greek tragedy) occasionally sounding like Walter Cronkite. In the Trojan war, a culture was destroyed, its men killed and its women driven into slavery. In World War II, the result was the Americanization of Japanese culture, a fate that Suzuki finds equally horrific. Precisely because it is not burdened with a plot, "The Trojan Women" gives him an almost ideal platform for his morality tale.
Besides the Japanese language -- used with awesome power by actress Kayoko Shiraishi in three roles -- Suzuki presents his message in a dazzling variety of gestures. There is no scenery; props are used sparingly and, therefore, with enhanced impact. But the production's principal language is body language, and most of the time it communicates directly and powerfully across cultural barriers. The three warriors who represent the conquering army march on like figures in an animated cartoon. The Buddhist god Jizo, who spends most of the evening impassively observing, ends the play with a gesture that distills anger and despair, while the sound track ironically blasts out a rock song with the refrain in English, "I want you to love me tonight." The chorus (defeated old men and women) scurries around in crouched positions like mice in a junkyard. Above all Shiraishi, one of the great actresses of our time, coordinates her syllables and gestures like a virtuoso playing a violin concerto.
What it all means finally can be embodied only in the gestures that are the drama, but one leaves "The Trojan Women" with the feeling that it is better to be a suffering human than a victorious, rampant animal.