There are many versions of the legend of Kiyohime and Anchin of Japanese folklore. In Dojoji: The Man Inside the Bell, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre re-imagines the Buddhist parable of the star-crossed lovers with traditional elements of Noh, Kabuki, Kyogen, and Bunraku while adding the modern touches of anime and Harajuku-style modernism.
Playwright Ernest Abuba (Kwatz! The Tibetan Project, Eat a Bowl of Tea) and director Tisa Chang (Pan Asian Rep’s Artistic Director) reunite with legendary Japanese and Okinawan dancer/instructor/choreographer Sachiyo Ito, with whom they first collaborated in the 1980s. In addition to choreographing the current incarnation of Dojoji, Ito plays the spirit of Kiyohime, providing the play with its most traditional, Kabuki-like elements.
A classic tale that is as popular in Japan as Romeo and Juliet is in the West, Pan Asian Rep’s version of Dojoji centers around the themes of karma and reincarnation with time travel thrown in for good measure. Kiyohime (Kiyo Takami), the daughter of Shoji the Innkeeper (David Shih), falls in love with a handsome young monk named Anchin (played by the handsome young actor Toshiji Takeshima), who spends a night at the inn while on his way to Dojoji Temple. When Shoji remarks that the two youngsters will one day marry, Kiyohime takes the unlikely prediction to heart. Anchin caves in to his passion, but, after remembering his vows of chastity, thinks better of having a relationship with the girl. Unable to cope with the rejection, Kiyohime turns into a vicious sea serpent as she chases her former lover down the river.
The characters appear again in present-day Japan as anime characters, juxtaposing Ito’s elegant Kabuki movement with martial arts. Campy and cute, this updated scene left me wondering what Dojoji would’ve been like if presented in an entirely in anime style.
Overall, Dojoji is an entertaining production of a Japanese myth in both traditional and contemporary ways. The timing seemed a bit disjointed, with its use of flashbacks and its strange allusions to lapses in time. Anchin somehow loses a year of his life, and we’re all left wondering if there really was a bamboo grove where Anchin first met Kiyohime. (I’m still not sure.)
Shih is delightful as both the innkeeper and the abbot of the temple, which seemed like the same character in many ways. Ito’s dances are spellbinding, lending an ethereal feature to the stark stage, which is adorned by only a riser and a screen projecting animated scenes. The choreography and costumes alone are worth the visit to Theatre Row to see Dojoji, even if you don’t quite follow the non-linear flow of the play.
Dojoji is part of Pan Asian Rep’s 36th season, a season in which the venerable theater company celebrates the artistic influences of Japan. Previous Japanese-related productions this season include No-No Boys and Three Trees.
Dojoji: The Man Inside the Bell runs through Sunday, June 9 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row located at 410 W. 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. Tickets are $50. To purchase tickets, please call Telecharge at 212.239.6200 or visit their website, or go to the Theatre Row Box Office.