John Rudoff

WITHOUT GETTING INTO the nitty-gritty history of Noh theater in Japan, the way it's been practiced over the last few centuries—excruciatingly subtle, barely vocalized, pared down to a series of exaggerated gestures—has made classic Noh plays a tough sell for Western audiences.

Then: Yukio Mishima. Mishima wrote scores of novels, stories, essays, and plays, including many modern adaptations of Noh plays. Mishima's Noh plays reflected his complicated beliefs, blending Western modernity and traditional Japanese values.

In the hands of Jerry Mouawad and the crew at Imago, the pastiche inherent in Mishima's The Lady Aoi is blown up even further. The classic play is the story of Aoi (Gwendolyn Duffy), a woman haunted by an evil spirit. Mishima's version takes place in a 1950s psychiatric institution, where Aoi is watched over by a nervy nurse (Emily Welch) and her husband Hikaru (Matt DiBiasio), and haunted by the "living ghost" of an ex-lover of Hikaru's, Lady Rokujo (Jeannie Rogers).

  • John Rudoff

Mouawad brilliantly pushes Mishima's modernism, already on the brink, into full-on midcentury postmodernism. Mishima was looking at traditional values through a lens of modern sexuality, but here a filter is placed on that lens, casting everything in shades of seedy, sepia-toned noir. Jeff Forbes' lighting design is tangible: Window-blind striations slash the stage when it's not lit by hospital fluorescents; headlights pin Welch to the wall as she narrates the ghost's approach.

The actors wear microphones, but they only come into play for certain scenes or lines. DiBiasio's monotone semi-whispered asides recall both film noir voiceover and the rote history of Noh.

Welch is especially adept at selling the most ludicrous psychosexualities: "Every last [person] is the ghost of a libido." Meanwhile, Duffy's almost wordless performance as the sleeping title character is always in the foreground, as Aoi writhes in haunted pain with freakout J-horror creepiness.

At only about an hour, it's a short show, with hardly a plot to speak of, but it's rare to be so fully enveloped in a distinct style, to feel so completely secure in the hands of a director and designer like Mouawad. It's not to be missed.

The Lady Aoi
Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through March 27, $15-25,