Review: Imago Theatre’s ‘The Black Lizard’

The English premiere of the classic Japanese jewel heist satire seduces but occasionally stumbles over its own obi in this noir-thriller-erotic-kabuki mash-up. Thru June 2

By Aaron Scott May 17, 2012

The Black Lizard (Anne Sorce, right) kidnaps a beautiful jewel heir (Samantha Joy Luhn). Photo by Sumi Wu

The sexy sway of the Black Lizard sure has seduced Portland with her campy Japanese charms.

Perhaps you’ve heard of her from Pink Martini’s “The Song of the Black Lizard,” the eerie but beautiful track from their first album, Sympathique. During concerts, bandleader (and lover of all things obscure and campy) Thomas Lauderdale likes to tell the story of tracking down the drag queen Akihiro Miwa, who originally sang the song while playing the Black Lizard in the 1968 Japanese cult classic about a sexy jewel thief femme fatale who seeks to steal and preserve beauty by turning gorgeous young people into lifeless statues that never age.

And now, thanks to Imago Theatre’s Jerry Mouawad, you can get her full story in English for the first time. With translation help from Laurence Kominz and Mark Oshima, Mouawad is staging the first English adaptation of the 1949 play by Yukio Mishima, a three-time Nobel Prize nominee and one of Japan’s most important writers from the 20th Century, that was the inspiration for the movie (and is itself based on a detective novel from 1934). And the production is delightful in its genre-mashing, multimedia ingenuity, if its does drag and stumble at times.

A camp satire of sorts, the story is drawn straight from the jewel heist/crime noir genre: an endlessly resourceful and sexy jewel thief called ‘The Black Lizard’ has her eyes set on the ultimate prize, a priceless diamond called the Star of Egypt belonging to Japan’s wealthiest jeweler, and, even to even more sinister ends, his equally pristine and beautiful daughter. The jeweler hires Japan’s most famous (and disillusioned) detective, Kogoro Akechi, for protection. A battle of wits, disguises, and plot twists ensue as the Black Lizard kidnaps the daughter and heads for her secret island getaway with the detective in hot pursuit—literally, for the Black Lizard and Akechi, both more archetypes than individuals, start to fall in love with each other and what the other represents.

While it might be a genre plot, it’s far from a genre production. Mishima mixed an intoxicating cocktail that combines the psychological complexity of Japanese realist dramas; the monologues, dance, and music of grand kabuki; and strong doses of the era’s eroticism and camp (the leading lady was played by a drag queen—and Mishima’s lover—after all) to which Mouawad has added some gloriously creative staging plays of his own as he whisks us from a Tokyo hotel to the Tokyo streets to an ocean liner to the Black Lizard’s lair (all beautifully designed by Dan Meeker), no mean feat for a small production. One highlight in particular is a noir-style city chase scene, which happens entirely on a screen with projections of the city (by Catherine Egan and Kyle Delmarter) and the artfully directed manipulations of silhouettes by the characters. Also of note is the equally complex mashup of sound effects and music by Kyle Delamarter and John Berendzen, which further flirts with the camp over stylizations of the production by, respectively, punctuating points of dialogue and action with lo-fi sound effects and also underlying the existential, kabuki “chamber” style soliloquies of the characters with fuzzy, Orientalized music.

Unfortunately, the acting itself is also a mix. The leads are strong. Anne Sorce plays the Black Lizard with wide, frozen eyelids, her pupils darting from one corner to the other. As cold and contained as the gems she steals, she seductively draws out her syllables, occasionally losing control with neatly confined yelling fits. I yearned to be front row for the theatrical equivalent of close ups of her eyes (and pitied the folks in the back of the house or with outdated prescriptions). Matt DiBiasio gives Akechi the stony, disaffected swagger of the noir detective and also gets a humorous turn in disguise. And the physical humor, particularly by Black Lizard’s two mostly silent henchmen, entertains and perfectly suits the production. However, several of the other supporting actors fall flat and begin to wear heavily after a while.

Consequently, as fun as parts of the show are, others started to drag for me, particularly in the first act (and this version is shortened from the original). In pursuing multiple styles, it commits to none, challenging the audience to wonder what to take seriously and what as parody, which is not necessarily a bad or unintentional thing, just something to be aware of. Despite being overwrought, it’s not straightforward comedic camp, but something more thoughtful and complex. The show is recommended for adults, but I think it should be less due to the full nudity at the end and more because you need a decent attention span and love for, as well as knowledge about, the competing genres in order to get the maximum pleasure from the Black Lizard’s many guiles.

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