“Meri Kurisumasu!” – Yes, Christmas (Kurisumasu) is now very popular in Japan, but as a secular event and a time to spread happiness.
Few pieces of literature are more strongly associated with British and American holiday culture than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And few societies seem to diverge from those Anglo cultures as much as Japanese. Yet, in 1993, founding artistic director of Theatre of Yugen, Yuriko Doi, and Cianna Stewart created a theatrical adaptation of that celebrated work and transported the action to 19th century Japan. The play has been revived for the current season. It fully engages the viewer and offers interesting contrast to the traditional telling.
As suggested by the name of the producing company’s theatrical space, its unique position in the Bay Area market is to produce works in the Japanese theatrical genre, including the techniques of kyōgen (comic relief) and kabuki (dance drama.) But the central practice is noh, which generally dramatizes traditional tales involving supernatural characters. On these plot line measures, A Christmas Carol fills the bill.
Among the many alterations, the narrative has been abbreviated to play at 75 minutes, which includes movement and dance that slow the pace without advancing the story. However, that is not to say that the choreography doesn’t add value, as the cultural ambiance is established through the more formal practices of the Japanese culture. Indeed, within Japanese aesthetics, yugen refers to profound grace and subtlety. The visits from Jacob Marley and the three Christmas ghosts dominate the clock, while the forestory and Scrooge’s transformation are shortened. However, the themes of the original are fully retained. The audience is treated to compassion, forgiveness, the importance of family, and importantly, redemption. The play works cross-culturally in part because the importance of these traits is universal in one form or another.
In concert with the substitute locale, the look of the staging and costuming is very Japanese in its simple elegance, with large fields of subtle colors and splashes of brightness. An added dimension is the full sound score composed by Zhoushu Ziporyn which fully reflects and embellishes the moods of the piece. Ominous segments like the beautifully executed appearance of Marley’s chained apparition with a disembodied voice are particularly enhanced by the music.
Interesting aspects of the presentation concern the casting, which is comprised of four females and one male, despite the dominance of male characters in the play. With the exception of Shannon Davis who plays Sukurooji Ebezo (that’s Ebenezer Scrooge to Anglophones), all players cover multiple roles . Certainly, Asian actors abound in the Bay Area, and few local theater productions would lack at least one. Yet four of the actors are European-Americans and the other is African-American. It’s unclear whether the casting is colorblind or non-traditional by design, but it reflects courage on the part of director Nick Ishimaru, and it works. It should be noted that in keeping with Japanese drama conventions, many characters have painted faces or wear masks, so that the ethnicity would not always be clear anyway.
In any case, for those who seek a new holiday entertainment experience, A Noh Christmas Carol provides freshness and tradition in a unique and entertaining way.
A Noh Christmas Carol adapted by Yuriko Doi and Cianna Stewart from the novel by Charles Dickens is produced by Theatre of Yugen and plays at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA, through December 24, 2017.