Rappaccini Variations: Japanese Noh Theatre Controversy

Becca Siegel

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The fall HMTC production, “The Rappaccini Variations,” has generated controversy recently regarding its usage of Noh, a type of Japanese theatre.

“The Rappaccini Variations,” uses a combination of different theatre styles, such as Noh, to narrate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

Noh theatre originated in 14th-century Japan and centers around the discussion of life after death, and in the context of “The Rappaccini’s Variations,” a ghost’s decision to stay in or depart the material world.

For the Noh scene of the play, Bebe Steel (11) and Sarah Sun (9) wear traditional shozoku (a style of silk robe), wigs, and masks. The controversy lies in the masks’ appearance, which in traditional Noh style, are painted to represent Japanese faces. The masks have overly-exaggerated yellow skin and small eye-holes, actress in “The Rappaccini Variations” Allison Li (12) said.

Members of the cast, such as Li, have been upset with the costume department’s decision to place actors in copies of the traditional Noh masks, as they resemble yellow-face, Li said.

The conflict was first noticed by Binah Schatsky (12) and Steel, upon viewing the masks during last Friday’s dress rehearsal. Both initially saw the possible controversy, but Steel felt that the masks would be a crucial part to appreciating the Noh customs properly, Steel said.

The play’s company had a meeting this past Saturday morning to discuss the issue, calling in Director of Office for Identity, Culture and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Patricia Zuroski to advise them on changes that could be made to the script or costumes to avoid offending members of the school’s community.

The usage of Noh theater was meant to introduce viewers to a complex Japanese tradition, rather than cause offense, Timko said.

“I can see where the controversy stems from, but we are trying to appreciate the style of theatre and spread its influence to students who might not have had experience with it before,” Steel said.