Puppeteer Basil Twist returns to Spoleto to revive a dead Japanese art 

Peeling the Onion

In his Republic, Plato asked a question that's been dogging us ever since: Is there more to the world than what we can see and hear and touch?

The question sprang from what has come to be called the Allegory of the Cave, in which enchained inhabitants, who'd never seen anything but shadows flittering on the walls, believe that the shadows are reality, not a representation of reality. Plato's point was that the philosopher, wise as he is, knows a reality ultimately exists beyond our senses.

You can see the theatrical potential of shadows cast on a wall, and of keeping theatergoers on their toes. Theater aims to fool us into believing in the unreal — even if just for a suspended moment.

Which is precisely what Basil Twist aims to do with his new, um, twist on an old art form. The acclaimed puppeteer returns to Spoleto after four years. His new puppetry creates illusion using techniques now dead in Japan.

It's called dogugaeshi. It is a type of Japanese puppet theater that employs an elaborate matrix of screens, each of which flip, open, close, shift side to side, slide up and down, move backward and forward. The screens are hand-painted with images of fish or birds or water scenes. Dogugaeshi (pronounced DOH-goo-ga-EH-shee) gives puppeteers full command of three dimensions to create milieus in which to tell stories.

"The effect is of receding into the distance," says Twist, whom Spoleto fans remember for his 2005 puppet production of Respighi's Sleeping Beauty in the Woods. "The audience gets an idea of perspective and space and time. It's an eternity of screens, a constant peeling away, like an onion."

Twist is credited with reintroducing dogugaeshi to its native country. About five years ago, the Japan Society of New York asked him to make a new work based on old traditions. It so happened at the time that someone showed Twist a 30-second black-and-white film of dogugaeshi that featured a silver-maned fox.

"It was magnificent," Twist recalls. "We found the film in a vault. It was so abstract. A fox with nine tails and teeth made of gold romping around layer after layer of slides. I was astounded this tradition had been forgotten for so long."

Thirty seconds was enough to hook him for good. The result is Dogugaeshi, an abstract montage of moods in which the slides are the main focus, along with video projections onto the slides. The doe-eyed fox is something of a host, as Twist retraces his discovery of dogugaeshi, beginning with the short film and ending with a 2004 performance. Accompanying the fox as he romps in light and shadow is Yumiko Tanaka, playing a three-string guitar called a shamisen.

"She adds so much to the show," Twist says.

Anne Midgette, former critic of The New York Times, wrote that Dogugaeshi wasn't for a passive audience. It has no plot, per se, and it takes a little work, but audience members are handsomely rewarded in the end.

"It's a slow-paced evening, meditating on the movement of time," she wrote. "[Twist's] new piece requires you to meet it halfway; but it will come to you as far as you will let it."

Illusion, especially theatrical illusion, is magical no matter what country you're in. Different means, same end. Plato knew that the shadows can seem to be all there is. For Twist, that's what makes dogugaeshi so wonderful.

"Who knew something so horizontal could be so beautiful?" he says.


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