Opening night on Friday May 4 was a triumph for the cast and crew of “Power Plays” at Theatre of Yugen. Extracting inspiration from Japan’s century’s old, Kyogen tradition, “Power Plays” is a series of four short plays all centered on the theme of power over others.
The first two were very much set in the Kyogen style with elegantly detailed Japanese kimonos, fans hats, silks, masks and embroidered attire. Artistic Director for Theatre of Yugen, Nick Ishimaru explained to this reporter before the show began at 7 PM. “When we stage a classic Kyogen play like the first two presented tonight (“Religious Dispute” and “The Mosquito”), we strive to present it as genuine an experience as possible.”
Ishimaru who also performs in the plays pointed out that Kyogen is the traditional form of comedy dating as far back as the 8th or 9th Century in Japan. Even though the goal is to “translate” these into English so that Westerners can understand and enjoy them, “we push ourselves to keep them in tact” (and as close to the original style and meaning as possible) he said.
In addition to the fine kimono costumes, the movements and delivery of dialog is very structured, if that be the best way to describe it. Almost in some ways like a dance -“This is what makes it ‘physical theatre’ – that the characters are embodied totally,” said Ishimaru.
Even the tone of voice (which at times is like a melodic chant) is structured so that the audience knows this is a Kyogen skit. Loosely translated ‘Kyogen’ means “Mad words or wild speech” the dialog between characters is sung. It took a few moments to get accustomed to the style, especially as the vocal range goes from high to low and back up again.
As one audience member said to me as she leaned over in a whisper, “it is sort of like a Haiku poem. its a style or format.” And as I learned later, yes, indeed it is a style and a way in which the words are said and the way each actor moves. Everything, even if minimal, all is essential in presenting a Kyogen play.
Ishimaru and fellow cast member Lluis Valls were able to say and sing words clearly in Japanese and then in English as the two were portraying priests on a return trip from a pilgrimage.
Once the words were said in English, it was obvious this skit was about something very familiar to many people. The argument over dogma and doctrine is universal and timeless. To add even more to the comedic churning, between “vegetables and sins” the two priests got confounded and entangled when each one desperately tried to convert the other to what he thought was the best way.
I couldn’t help but admire the actors for their steadfast determination to follow the style and manner of Kyogen to every detail, even when it was difficult to do so. Some like Valls have been with Theatre of Yugen for years as each have had extensive training, education and experience.
Everything was performed precisely and both cast and crew were confident beyond any distractions. For example, all the layers of the traditional costumes were at times confining and under stage lights no doubt the actors were sweating. But they remained composed and did not miss their marks.
Theatre of Yugen founder Yuriko Doi certainly has made a wonderful impression upon these actors because dedication and self-discipline was easy to discern in each of the actors in all four plays.
The two plays after intermission were definitely more contemporary. While also based on classic Japanese plays of old (“Yamabushi” and “Nukegara”) the premise was refashioned. Dressed in regular street clothes the actors made references to current events and points, setting the scenes here in the Bay Area.
Actors Ryan Marchand and Meryn MacDougall put a very clever spin on the present day dynamic between working class and elite-class minded people. Mentions of the high tech world also put into focus that our current time is not too far removed from that of the strict and severe class structure of Japan of old.
Yet, even with the more contemporary format, the theme of power over others (such as in class system and hierarchy) was still in focus. The final play “Those Mushrooms” based upon the play “Nukegara’ was political satire anyone and everyone today can recognize.
Fenner, almost stole the entire show portraying Donald Trump in the role of President of the United States. Fenner mimicked and yet conveyed intuitively not only the mannerisms of the man in power but his political dynamic as it rises and falls in his faulty rhetoric to the public.
Each one of the other cast members such as Virginia Blanco, Sara Matsui-Colby, Chris Petallano all presented and portrayed some current issue or aspect of the public that has been impacted since the Trump Administration has taken office.
The highlight of opening night was to see Theatre of Yugen founder and director Yuriko Doi, come up to the stage and take a bow with her cast and crew. Doi has been the life force behind this unique and one-of-a-kind theatre group in the Bay Area. Since its inception in 1978, Theatre of Yugen has received numerous accolades and awards for its commitment to ground-breaking theatre and cultural heritage.
“May Mayhem: Power Plays” continues every Friday and Saturday evening with a show on Sundays at 4 PM from now until May 13. For tickets and more information visit Theatre of Yugen web site.
-By Jonathan Farrell, freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area