Over the past weekend, the dead – both the long- and newly-dead – danced and sang in the Johnson Theatre as part of one of the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) main productions in the 2019-2020 season. But they weren’t the only people dead in the theatre—according to the characters of the show, the audience was also dead, simply by having entered the theatre.
This show, ”The Gate,” was unlike productions many of the students participating in the show had done before, because this production was quite literally an international effort.
Kaso Jogi, a theatre company from Japan, spent the past month at UNH, rehearsing and teaching students.
“We started rehearsals about a month ago,” Bryson Badeau, a sophomore dual major in theatre: secondary theatre education and design and theatre technology, said. Badeau played a character titled Flashback Boy, who, like the rest, was a corpse.
On show nights, production extended into the lobby of the theatre, where members of Kaso Jogi and cast members – in character and costume – encouraged the audience to participate in games even before they had picked up their tickets. The games were simple, akin to games at a carnival, such as picking up balloons with a paper clip on a string, but everyone received a prize, be it a plastic beta fish or a packet of tissues and an ad for the company’s next production.
Once the audience entered the theater, they could not simply sit in silence waiting for the show to start; cast members populated the theater, with one character engaging the audience with a game in the aisle between seating sections. The same character carried a cardboard box; “Pick a card!” she yelled in a high-pitched, cutesy voice, similar to that of a cartoon character. The cards were not explained as the audience settled into their seats.
Sophomore musical theatre major Emily Shafritz spoke of the rehearsal schedule after the show: six days a week, four hours a day, on top of everyone’s class requirements. Shafritz highlighted what made this production so unique for UNH students.
“One of the things with [Director Saori Aoki’s] directing style is we talk a lot about play and discovery,” Shafritz said, explaining that American directors have narrower roles for actors compared to Aoki’s style.
“One of the things I wanted to do with this work is having everyone show their uniqueness,” Aoki said after the show.
Aoki wrote the show and created the theatre company, according to the company’s website. The company was founded in 2016, said Claire Tanaka, the interpreter for the company and translator of the production. “One of the main goals of the company [is] to take shows overseas as much as possible,” she said. “The Gate” was shown in Edinburgh, Scotland, Tanaka said, where it attracted the attention of UNH Professor of Theater David Kaye and his family.
According to Tanaka, Kaye reached out to Kaso Jogi last year to bring the production to campus. The Department of Theatre and Dance, within the College of Liberal Arts (COLA), works to bring international productions and shows from other cultures to campus, as part of Cultural Stages: The Woodward International Drama and Dance Initiative.
“It’s been an incredible experience both theatrically and culturally,” Hannah Wasacz, a sophomore musical theatre major who played Un, said. Other cast members agreed, speaking of the cultural exposure they gained working on the show.
“We probably never would have had the opportunity to do a kabuki-style show. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you do in terms of theater,” Rhi Watkins, a dance major, said. She explained that kabuki is “the traditional Japanese style of theater,” hallmarked by white face paint and the movements and traits of its characters. Watkins played the White Snake.
Before the show, wearing their characters’ white kimonos, fox-shaped masks and white face paint, cast members observed the audience. Some held paper lanterns. One stood in the middle of the stage, conversing periodically with the character offering cards. She sat beside two paper lanterns, a red arch behind her, at the back of the stage. This arch was the gate characters would pass through—or not pass through.
The show began 10 minutes after its official start time, as characters were preparing the stage and adding more props. Instrumental music in the traditional Japanese style played over speakers started the show.
“At first they were a little bit holding back…They really rose to the challenge,” Aoki said after the show, speaking of working with the cast. “Then I said, ‘Let’s go on an adventure together.’”
“One of the things with [Aoki’s] directing style is we talk a lot about play and discovery,” Shafritz acknowledged. “It’s really about there are no wrong answers… which for us, in the beginning, it was really difficult to do.”
With the starting music of the show, all characters not on stage moved toward it, some carrying more lanterns that they placed on stage. They stiffened and jerked their heads synchronized with the music, masks concealing any expression beyond stares. One character – Three-Legged Crow, played by senior Lina Dammann – stood in the gate, observing.
“It’s time,” a voice, origin unclear, remarked. All characters ran onto the stage. They gathered at the back of the stage in a group, in a pose similar to the iconic first scene pose of “Cats: The Musical.”
The characters quickly turned toward the death and dying focus of the production. “If there’s someone who still has a beating heart, please raise your hand, and we will take it for you,” one said.
After removing their masks, the cast began the first song, “Welcome All Ye Corpses,” accompanied by circus music. The circus-like, playful atmosphere was present for much of the show, as planted members of the audience, holding cards showing their number in line, became part of the other corpses, outfitted with a white kimono and face paint.
As playful as the long-dead corpses were, serious themes were an undertone for the hour of a show. The newly dead would have to meet those long-dead, and answer two questions before they could pass through the gate: Who are you? What do you want to be next?
Both questions posed existential crises for the newly dead. Those unable to answer did not pass through the gate. The production highlighted new corpse number five, or Man Age 45, played by sophomore Henry Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s character was fixated on his death being too soon—he had “unfinished business.”
The show also emphasized that each person’s memories are different for each person involved in a memory, from what actually happened in that memory to how that moment felt; the story of that memory was unique for each person. A scene was devoted to flashing back to a memory in Hutchinson’s childhood.
“The take-away from this is show is you have your entire life to get things done, you can’t take life for granted.” Badeau said after the show. “Death isn’t something you should be afraid of… it’s just another phase.”
“’The Gate’ will always appear in front of those who needed it,” Dammann’s character said toward the end.
“All the actors that you see are corpses on the stage,” the cast sang as the second-to-last song before all but one got their masks and left the stage. The character remaining was Schoolteacher, played by senior Sean Tenedine, number one, the most reluctant new corpse.
Tenedine strode toward the only colorful mask, which no one had yet worn, a mask half orange, half white, broken by a black stripe across its face.
“The corpses will become foxes, and they’ll invite you to the theater over and over and over,” Tenedine concluded. “As for me? Well,” Tenedine put the mask on, posed and ran away.
The show officially ended with the entire cast, sans kimonos, returning along with members of Kaso Jogi for the final song.
While the audience left the theater, the cast stayed behind for at least a half hour afterwards. They returned to the stage, removing their makeup as Aoki, through Tanaka, gave them show notes, compliments and critiques of their acting to make sure the production was as good as possible.
“Tomorrow is a once in a lifetime stage and it’s a play that could change the lives of the audience,” Aoki told the cast after the Saturday night production, before Sunday’s final show. “I don’t need good actors. I want actors who are excited to be here, who are ready to do it, who want nothing more than to be on this stage… I want more power than this stage can contain.”
Although the show demanded much of the casts’ time, cast members were eager to express their love for the show.
“I would take this on tour. I would tour with it for months… It’s just magical. This show’s magical,” Shafritz said.