One of the missions of Cleveland Public Theatre is to bring new works and fresh performers to the area, and the production now playing in its upstairs theater accomplishes that exactly. Working in cooperation with the New York City-based Active Eye group, CPT is presenting Dojoji, an 11th-century Japanese fable told in a lean, frequently arresting manner. The work combines Noh and Kabuki theatrical traditions, along with Zen-like piano accompaniment; isolated percussive accents using bamboo sticks, a mixing bowl, and a tiny cymbal; and stylized dance. In short, this isn't Guys and Dolls.
The minimalist stage, designed by Takeshi Kata, inspires a different mindset, since it looks like a clean and appealing room from a feature in Architectural Digest. A large, open floor space in the center is flanked by two sunken areas -- one from which the three chorus members operate and the other where a baby grand piano sits. On the back wall is a relaxing image of cherry-blossom branches, with flowers that come and go during the 55-minute play.
While the setting is quite calming, the thrust of the script, adapted by Andrew Grusetskie, is more like Fatal Attraction (minus the parboiled bunny). A young monk on a pilgrimage has spent the night at a house where a nubile woman resides, and it's love at first glance (as she says, "I want to crawl inside you, I want to swallow you whole"). Sure, she seems a tad needy, but -- proving that Japanese men from 10 centuries ago are pretty much like men everywhere -- the guy promises to return, then disappears and never even calls. Of course, the woman obsesses over her AWOL monk, and eventually her unrequited passion transforms her, both physically and spiritually.
This story has its moments, but the real attraction here is an almost hypnotic performance that blends movement, music, and words in intriguing ways. The actors smoothly match their gestures and beats to Riko Lino's music (performed by Russell Brown), dovetailing the physical with the auditory in a style that challenges, even as it soothes. Set within such a highly stylized milieu, each struck piano note, every tap on a woodblock, and all the words and gestures seem lovingly crafted and polished to a sheen.
Under the knowing direction of Jyana S. Gregory (who co-founded Active Eye and is associate artistic director at CPT), the cast conveys a freedom of expression while observing strict performance guidelines. Kristine Kuroiwa, also an Active Eye performer, is powerful and focused as the woman. Less interesting is Tom Weaver's monk, since he lacks the vocal and physical presence to ignite such a flood of adoration. But the chorus -- featuring David Loy, Robert J. Williams, and Jazmin Corona -- provides excellent counterpoint to the distressed couple, with Loy and Williams each generating laughter by their oddly affecting mannerisms.
For most people, the evanescent meaning of this play will "float like ashes above the fire." But the performance itself resonates like a bell across a calm lake.