Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima's work is filled with seeming contradictions: the confluence of sex and death, the modern grotesqueries that result from the unremitting pursuit of the timeless and beautiful. His 1961 play, The Black Lizard, adapted into English for the first time by director Jerry Mouawad and translators Laurence Kominz and Mark Oshima, is no stranger to these obsessions. It revolves around a slinky minx of a criminal, the Black Lizard (the excellent Anne Sorce), who kills and preserves naked youthful bodies so she can admire their beauty forever.
But The Black Lizard is no dreary, dark parable. It is a thing of wit and intelligence and fun, a post-Brechtian, genre-bending romp at play with the deformed heart of the 1930s detective thriller. It reminds one, more than anything, of the ecstatic formal play of the early French New Wave. Characters spout existentialist tropes in the exaggerated cadences of camp noir. Everyone kills the ones they love, or dies trying. It's Alphaville meets Pierrot le Fou, on a kabuki stage.
On the surface, the story is simple. The Black Lizard has kidnapped the daughter of Japan's richest jeweler, to be ransomed at the price of a fabulous jewel. Detective Kogoro Akechi (played by Matt DiBiasio with a hilarious vocal resemblance to Patrick Warburton's The Tick) must catch her and save the girl. Criminal and detective—two sides of the same coin—are, of course, in terrible, impossible love.
Director Mouawad smartly plays Mishima's script for maximum estrangement, breaking up the acts with staid Caucasian kabuki and allowing the characters to exist as satirical archetypes. Their inner monologues emerge in red-lit interludes, with sudden and uncanny poetic intensity. It is the sound, especially (designed by John Berendzen and Kyle Delamarter), that gives the play its flavor: abrasive Orientalized music, the recorded "tock!" of struck wood blocks thrust amid dialogue, the screeing city sounds of Tom Waits' "Midtown" instrumental.
The sound is a knowing John Zorn-style pastiche, and one of the biggest cues to how Mishima's play is to be viewed: not as kabuki detective thriller, and certainly not as a philosophical meditation on beauty and control, but rather as a heavily ironized postmodern stew of the serious, the formal and the downright trashy. Rather than farce, it is a detached quotation of farce, a precise clockwork of profane surprise.
SEE IT: Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 231-9581. 7:30 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays. Through June 2. $15-$30. Production contains nudity.