‘Death In Vacant Lot!’

Terayama Shuji’s avant-garde film masterpiece, “Den’en ni Shisu (Death in the Fields),” has been adapted for the stage as “DEATH IN VACANT LOT!,” a play with music, by The South Wing, an international theater company now working in New York.

The adaptation is by The South Wing’s artistic director, Kameron Steele, who is noted for his adaptation of the Suzuki method to American theater. After development at the Watermill Center, avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson’s theater laboratory in Southampton, NY, the piece will have its world premiere run October 4 to 14 at Swing Space, 15 Nassau Street, Manhattan, co-produced with The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Death in a Vacant Lot, by The South Wing. Actor: Ivana Catanese.
DEATH IN A VACANT LOT!, PERFORMED BY THE SOUTH WING. Actor: Ivana Catanese. Photo by Kali Dermes

The South Wing (www.thesouthwing.org) is comprised of musicians, actors and dancers who have previously worked with Cirque du Soleil, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, Mabou Mines, Anne Bogart’s SITI company, The Flying Machine, and the Suzuki Company of Toga. The company was founded in 2003 by Kameron Steele and Ivana Catanese during their residency at the Unlversidad de Guadalajara, Mexico and has toured extensively in the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

The bulk of The South Wing’s development process for “DEATH IN VACANT LOT!” has taken place at the Watermill Center, avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson’s theater laboratory at 39 Watermill Towd Road, Watermill (Southampton), NY (www.watermilcenter.org). This is the first time that Wilson has opened the doors of his Long Island Center to nurture the work of a young, leading-edge theatre company. A preview event will be held there on Sunday, September 24, 2006 at 3:00 pm. News and feature coverage are invited.

Terayama Shuji’s 1974 film, “Den’en ni Shisu” (Death in the Fields),” depicts an adolescent boy in prewar Japan who runs away from home. The boy’s coming of age is an allegory for Japan’s loss of innocence during WWII. The piece is wrought with conflicting pastoral images which are alternately romantic and sexually brutal, realistic and fantastic. It makes particular use of the traditional Japanese tanka poetic form filled with very modern and often taboo or grotesque imagery. Terayama grew up in the era when Japan was occupied by US forces, far away from his mother, who worked as a prostitute for US enlisted men. The character representing him in the film endures a loss of innocence as his mother is lost to an invader or rapist figure. The historical metaphor is clear: just as loss of innocence is something that is forced upon the young, it was also forced on Japan as a whole in consequence of its egregious imperialism leading up to WWII.

In “DEATH IN VACANT LOT!,” Kameron Steele is adapting the film as a “Tommy”-style rock opera employing modernist music and a 21st Century American “post Global Village” context. Terayama’s text, translated into English by Steele, is staged with choreography, choral and solo song, tanka poetry, live and occasionally pre-recorded electric and acoustic music. Steele and The South Wing are one of a small handful of Western artists to be given permission by Kujo Kyoko, executor of the Terayama estate, to translate, adapt and direct Terayama’s work.

Steele believes that societies, like individuals, undergo a loss of innocence, usually resulting in either self-realization or self-destruction. The idea, therefore, is that Japan’s loss of innocence during the 30 years surrounding WWII points to the imagined loss of innocence that will happen over the next 20 years for the United States.

Using J.A. Ceasar’s extant soundtrack to “Den’en ni Shisu” (Death in the Fields) as context, four composer/musicians-Kevin McWha Steele, Jill Samuels, Kameron Steele and Katie Down-are collaborating on a new musical score, which will juxtapose ’60s Japanese folk-rock and contemporary electronic experimental music. Selections of Caesar’s score that were unused in the film will be employed, as will a combination of acoustic sounds and electronic, computer-driven music, to underscore the timelessness of the conceptual themes.

The actors are Ivana Catanese, Gillian Chadsey, Craig Dolezel, Catherine Friesen, James Garver, Jessica Green, LeeAnne Hutchison, Cecile Monteyne, Chris Oden, David Ponce, Jill Samuels, Nate Schenkkan and Andrew Shulman. Musicians are Katie Down, Nadia Mahdi and Kevin McWha Steele. Dramaturg is Nanako Nakajima. Costumes and props are by Nazanin Fakoor and Carlos Soto. Scenic and lighting design are by Mariano Marquez. Projections are by Nathan Guisinger and Scott Piscitelli. Choreography is by Nixon Beltran.

“DEATH IN VACANT LOT!” is made possible by Swing Space, a program of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), generously supported by the September 11 Fund. Spaces are donated by Silverstein Properties. This program has also been made possible through the sponsorship of The Field and the Watermill Center.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.