The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

Rated 4.0

Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet in distant Italy, and his young lovers came from rich rival families. Verdi’s Aida takes place in ancient Egypt and depicts a fateful love between an Ethiopian princess and one of the pharaoh’s commanders.

But Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon placed The Love Suicides at Sonezaki in his own time, 1703, and right at home in Osaka. In fact, the play was written within weeks of an actual love suicide that became the talk of the town. The story, about a merchant clerk who loves a prostitute, deals with ordinary people. Their choice to die together, rather than be separated by social forces beyond their control, originally was told as a puppet drama.

That’s what master puppeteer and director Richard Bay does in this campus production. Bay’s multidisciplinary show is a homage to (rather than an attempt to fully recreate) Japanese bunraku drama. The main roles are played by nearly life-sized puppets, operated by multiple puppeteers (covered head to toe in black), and are voiced by narrators sitting beside the stage, accompanied by drums and wood blocks.

There are also images cast by shadow puppets, and there’s a bit of the modern tradition of butoh, with two performers in white makeup dancing in midair as they dangle from ropes. The onstage musical ensemble also includes clarinet and piano, instruments that barely existed in Europe in Chikamatsu’s time and were unknown in Japan.

Love Suicides is 300 years old and comes from outside the Western framework that defines most of our expectations, but this tragic tale still packs a punch. That’s a tribute to Chikamatsu’s writing (and Donald Keene’s moving English translation) and the storytelling ability of Bay and his large ensemble of student puppeteers and musicians.