“Poetry, passion and heartbreaking beauty” – that’s how Sweet Briar theater professor Bill Kershner describes “Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards,” the College’s spring theater production, which opens later this month.
Directed by Kershner, “Fair Ladies” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28 through Saturday, March 1 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 2 in Murchison Lane Auditorium at Babcock Fine Arts Center.
Tickets, which must be reserved, go on sale Monday, Feb. 18 and are $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students 12 and older and free for children younger than 12. Sweet Briar community members are admitted free.
The play is based on an 17th-century work by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a man known as the “Japanese Shakespeare.” Originally written for puppets, it was adapted for English-speaking actors by British playwright Peter Oswald.
According to Kershner, “Fair Ladies” is a “classic Japanese play” and “absolutely a love story – an almost tragic love story, but [with] a happy ending.”
Before theatergoers begin to ponder the plot, however, the first question that might come to mind is, “What is a poem card?”
An ancient Japanese card game still played on New Year’s Day in Japan, poem cards are a deck of 100 cards, half of which are printed with a picture of a poet and three lines of a five-line poem. Those 50 cards are dealt, and the players try to find the last two lines of each poem among the remaining 50 cards.
The person who finds a match believes the poem’s meaning is directed at them.
Kershner described the game as a “combination between a test of literary knowledge and something like Go Fish,” and said poem cards are also like a fortune cookie. In “Fair Ladies,” for example, one of the main characters, Yokobue, played by Sweet Briar junior Elizabeth Zuckerman, gets a card suggesting she’ll be reunited with her lover.
“Fair Ladies” is set in the Imperial court of 12th-century Japan and tells the story of two young ladies of the court, Yokobue and Karumo, and a pair of Samurai, Yoshitsugu and Takiguchi. With the exception of two days a year – picnics held in spring and fall – the men and women are sequestered from each other.
“Young people being young people, during one of these picnics two couples manage to steal away and one of them gets pregnant,” Kershner said. “Up until then, it was sort of this nice love story, but in this society that they live in the consequences are really severe.
“The women are both ordered to be executed and the men would be, too, but they both flee and give up being Samurai and become Buddhist monks.”
Through a series of events, Karumo, played by Sweet Briar sophomore Katy Johnstone, and Yokobue and escape execution and set off on a journey to find their Samurai lovers, portrayed by local actors Jared Anderson and Justin Oliver.
Without divulging details, the director said the ending is “heartbreaking.”
A play with Samurai warriors would be incomplete without a fight scene or two, so Kershner’s son, Geoff, a certified fight scene choreographer and founder of Amherst’s Endstation Theatre, and Sweet Briar sophomore Sandi Prentice have designed several battles.
The fights will involve bokkens – wooden samurai swords used in practice – as well as wooden staffs and hand-to-hand combat. Unlike what might have transpired in medieval Japan, however, some of the ladies of “Fair Ladies” will fight alongside the men.
“The fights involve both sexes, but a lot of that has to do with production choices and not the history of combat in ancient Japan,” Geoff Kershner said. “Samurai were the warriors of the age and all were men. This production is going to be very stylized and therefore we can take liberties.”
A few weeks before opening night, Prentice, who has trained for 13 years in the Korean martial art Soo Bahk Do, said choreographing the fight scenes will be challenging and exciting. Even via e-mail, her enthusiasm about the project was unmistakable.
“I believe that there will be a total of three fight scenes, some taking place with two people and others with three or more,” she wrote. “Jumping from landing to landing, brazing swords at one another, the actors will battle evil to save the ones they love as well as rid the world of corruption.
“In one scene, three actors will fight around the stage, one trying to save a dear friend from a horrid execution, while the others oppose him. Being attacked from two different sides, our hero will evade death by inches and push back his enemies till they give up and run out of fear.”
Prentice cautioned that even though the weapons are made of wood, there is still an element of danger. “With everything that will be happening on the stage my main goal for the actors is their safety and also the safety for the audience who will be sitting on the stage,” she said.
“However, with safety in mind I want to make the scenes look as real as possible, and I believe that our actors can accomplish this task. I also hope that the actors will [develop] a new-found respect for the art and tradition of the sword and other weapons we will be using.”
Sets for the play will be minimal, consisting of a series of platforms which director Kershner called a “spare Japanese aesthetic where you show very little.” In addition, “alley staging” will be used, which means the audience will be split in half, facing each other with the action between them. Seating is available for about 150.
For reservations, call 381-6120 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Suzanne Ramsey