Theatre group showcases ‘noh’ play with an American twist

Last Saturday, Theatre Nohgaku visited campus to perform “Blue Moon Over Memphis,” a noh play about Elvis. Noh, one of the oldest theatre arts still regularly performed and the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre, combines chanting, music, masks and costume in a highly stylized art form. Noh requires highly-trained actors and conveys emotions through conventional gestures. Noh generally features known stories from Japanese mythology and folklore that the audience would normally be familiar with.

“Blue Moon Over Memphis” proved an interesting experience, for not only  was it a noh performed entirely in English, but it also drew on American traditions and “mythology” for its subject matter as well. Written by Deborah Brevoort, the playwright and member of Theatre Nohgaku, “Blue Moon Over Memphis” follows the trip of a woman named Judy who goes to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’ death. Oscar, the groundskeeper who unsuccessfully tries to send her away, hinders her journey. Under the unearthly glow of the blue moon, Elvis’s ghost rises from the grave, appears to her in the meditation garden of Graceland and conveys his loneliness to the audience in a haunting chant, “And now in death/ I long for the loneliness of life.” When daylight rises, his apparition disappears into the mist again.

“Blue Moon Over Memphis” takes formal Japanese elements of the noh play and makes the art form accessible for a non-Japanese audience. The traditional noh play relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of certain folk tales, as well as a familiarity with noh conventions. Instead of watching for the plot, audience members focus on the careful and virtuosic movements of the actors. All actors wear traditional shozoku, for example, but with interesting twists; denim patchwork makes up the fabric of Judy’s yukata, a touch of country that gives a nod to the setting, and the intricate golden brocade on Elvis’s white robe recalls his iconic, gold lamé suit. Only his fingertips can be seen peering out of the edge of his sleeves; his face obscured by the mask, he looks almost like a life-sized animatronic figure. In addition, “Blue Moon Over Memphis” does away with many traditional noh conventions that a western audience may not be able to understand. Instead, Brevoort explained, the play takes many of Presley’s iconic movements – the rubber leg and the pelvis shaking – and slows them down to the point of abstraction, maintaining an uncanny inability to be placed. Similarly, Richard Emmert, composer and music director of Theatre Nohgaku, takes Presley’s music, removes the funky instrumentals and slows it down to a ghostly tempo. What is left is an eerie melody both familiar and alien.

At the center of a play like “Blue Moon Over Memphis” is the tension between the known and unknown: the brief, enigmatic presence of Presley’s ghost and his palpable anguish obscured behind a mask, an American story taking place at an iconic landmark that has somehow been strained through strict formal practices and a minimalist set design enough to once again become a foreign zone. It is almost ironic that Presley, whose immense popularity coincided with the rise of mass culture in the United States, has been translated into the minimalist, solipsistic world of noh.

On its website, Theatre Nohgaku explains that “our mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English-speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.” If “Blue Moon Over Memphis” demonstrates anything, it is that Theatre Nohgaku has succeeded in putting on a noh play palatable and resonant with American audiences.

‘Blue Moon Over Memphis’ incorporates American traditions and folklore into a Japanese art form. Photo courtesy of thewriterintheworld.com.