There is nothing else in New York, possibly the world, like the mostly nonverbal revue “Ryuji Sawa: The Return.” Sawa’s fan base — out in full force at Tuesday’s performance — will know what to expect from the 72-year-old actor-writer-director, but adventurous novices are in for a series of surprises, some genuinely impressive, some with exquisite kitsch value. The elaborate, loudly musical variety show at first befuddles and then delights with acts ranging from an aortal Taiko drumming demonstration to monster-masked geishas doing the “Thriller” dance.
A genuine multicultural experience with no airbrushing or streamlining for the uninitiated, “Ryuji Sawa: The Return” centers — if it has a center, which is up for debate — on the melodramatic exploits of various warriors played by the titular actor. Sawa is certainly old enough for his role as the dashing hero to seem forced; he and his fellow combatants exercise a great deal of caution, making sure not to injure or unbalance one another.
If you were expecting to see a reprise of the martial acrobatics of recent Off Broadway opener “Jump,” you’re likely to feel disappointed at first. But as the fighting continues, the utter strangeness of the performance begins to reveal charms of its own. It’s impossible not to be drawn in, even enthralled by the sight of the elderly actor in a wig and green sequined kimono, waging careful war on evil ninjas to the deafening strains of what sounds like the score from a Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” serial.
Between Sawa’s adventures, the rest of the cast put on some truly breathtaking feats of skill. There’s a series of marvelous fan dances performed by 12-year-old Ozora Takami; there’s Ryuki Kiuchi’s funny, frightening masked bit “Crying and Laughing Are the Same”; and there are the giant Taiko drums, on which Yutaka Imaizumi and Shinya Iwashita pound with a precision in direct proportion to their speed.
But Sawa is the ringmaster here, and, when the show is finished, he whips a black handheld microphone out of his shiny robe. For better or worse, there’s no looking away as he wanders into the house with a devil-may-care grin, singing Sinatra-style to the audience, a halo of green speckles cast against the black wall behind him by the follow spot (translated lyrics are conveniently included).
There are moments in “The Return” (so named in deference to last year’s performance, “The World of Ryuji Sawa”) that are clearly comic, and there are obviously serious segments, as well. There’s also a middle ground, though, which is usually a place of embarrassment and consternation for both actor and audience. For Sawa’s odd enterprise, it’s the richest, most fertile territory in this undiscovered country: a little bit heavenly, a little bit hellish, and wonderfully unfamiliar.