The antagonist/lovers in Yukio Mishima’s The Black Lizard make sense — better sense than real people do — because they are concepts. The motivations of a conceptual character (and honestly, aren’t all “characters” conceptual?) possess the coherence and clarity of a fine diamond. Which maybe is why Mishima created these particular characters in the first place: He loved the beautiful, the permanent, the coherent. And that meant life posed a bit of problem for him, one he solved in a predictably messy way (a Keystone Kops coup d’etat attempt ending with his own ritual suicide).
I think Mishima the artist understood all of that, and his adaptation of a novel by Rampo Edogawa (which is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe) is campy and nutty and perverse, not a serious attempt to grapple with the ambiguities of real folk. Which isn’t to say that Mishima didn’t mean it somehow. He just understood how it would look to everybody else.
That all makes The Black Lizard perfect prey for the theater of Jerry Mouawad at Imago. If you are new to Imago, Mouawad and co-artistic director Carol Triffle have spent the past three decades-plus making some of the most unconventional theater in the country, let alone Portland. Which means, simply, that they pretty much completely ignore the School of Dramatic Realism that informs most of what we see on stage, and go a different route — stylized, poetic, psychologically illogical, except that psychology isn’t all that logical, when you think about it, is it?
Imago is best known for its kids shows, beginning with Frogz, carefully honed and polished movement theater that mingles in the same stream with the late and wonderful Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are. The adult side of Imago has been rich, strange and wonderful over the years, a theater that manages to exceed its limited means with imagination and countless hours of work on sets, costumes and effects of various sorts, a theater that is invariably surprising. Invariably, yes.
The Black Lizard contains several elements that mark Imago’s and especially Mouawad’s work, though here I should probably point out that Mouawad’s last five original shows abandoned words completely for a movement theater that was part mime, part dance.
So, let’s see:
- The speech is highly stylized. An Imago actor can speak very slowly, deliberately, emphatically. And she (or he) often wears a microphone to create special effects, in this case, to designate interior monologues.
- The set (Dan Meeker) is fabulous, from the curtain illustration of a geisha (by David Deide), to the bright colors and abstract elements (red ropes that hang from the ceiling framing the action). Action moves from side to side, from the front of the stage to the back. Imago occupies its stage.
- The movement is highly stylized, too, and not just the little choreographed bits for the three geishas. Movement isn’t “natural”… it means something.
- The effects include video (Catherine Egan and Kyle Delmarter) and interesting sound (John S Berendzen).
- The costumes are notable for Imago in that they ARE a bit on the naturalistic side, though the world they depict, the world of the ultra-rich, is pretty unnatural, when it comes right down to it. Yes, the plot is melodramatic, and the production acknowledges it, wallows in it, camps it up, has fun with it.
The melodrama tracks the battle between Black Lizard (Anne Sorce), a master jewel thief, and the private investigator Kogoro Akechi (Matt DiBiasio), who is attempting to keep her from stealing the Star of Egypt diamond. The plot also involves the lovely daughter (Samantha Joy) of the jeweler who owns the diamond, a kidnapping, and well, it gets very involved.
Sorce plays the Black Lizard with perfect deliberation, a femme fatale with an icy philosophy that believes in freezing the beautiful (even if it means killing them!) — the diamond is the perfect metaphor for that philosophy. Sorce doesn’t play the Black Lizard in a campy way. The production is campy as a whole, not the individual parts of it; she’s precisely measured in everything, at least until she starts to fall for the private eye. DiBiasio has to take a backseat to her, really, but he’s also pretty close to perfect, rough and metaphysical at the same time.
At the same time that I want to encourage you to see The Black Lizard, even if you’ve never been to an Imago show, I don’t want to mislead you. It’s different, something you’ll understand from the first moment. I happen to find it engaging, even mesmerizing, and so do lots of other devotees. On the other hand, two young women who were sitting in my row abandoned ship at intermission.
If I’d had the chance, I would have said something like, “Where are you going to go that offers anything quite like this?”