Arts Listings

Thoughts on Theatre Yugen’s 30th Anniversary

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:14:00 AM

During June, 1980, I was attending shows put on by Jean-Louis Barrault (best-known as Baptiste the pantomime in the movie Children of Paradise) at Zellerbach Auditorium. One night, performing “Language of the Body,” his “essay” on mime, Barrault showed us his piece-de-resistance from an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: a man taming, mounting and riding off on a bucking horse. Barrault played both man and horse (“this Centaur-horse”) I read later that night in the drama section at Moe’s, in Artaud’s Theater and Its Double almost 50 years before. Artaud, who had assisted his friend Barrault, wrote of the imagery and physical dynamism that made the piece a modern classic—and how its virtues limited it from touching deeper concerns—“But who has tasted the wellsprings?” 

At the end of the show, my old friend Barbara Framm looked back over the hall and said, “There’s Helen!” Helen Morgenrath, who Barbara knew through study of South Indian classical dance, had been one of the first American students of Kathakali dance theater in the late 1940s. 

Helen introduced us to several young women and “our teacher,” Yuriko Doi, who about a year before had founded Theatre of Yugen, to practice and perform the rigorous physical stylizations of Noh and Kyogen (classic comedy, often played between Noh tragedies). 

Yugen is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, along with other troupes promoting classic Asian forms: Gamelan Sekar Jaya, K. P. and Katherine Kunhiraman’s Kalanjali Dances of India, Barbara Framm’s teachers (both companies based in Berkeley) and Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions. These three came out of the Center for World Music, at San Francisco State in 1979, when Yuriko Doi was teaching Noh and Kyogen on campus. (The center would, at one point, move to Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.) 

After seeing a lecture-demo, which included the Kyogen comedy Melon Thief, I was intrigued; a few weeks later, Yuriko’s teachers, the Nomura family, performed here in memory of their father Manzo, a vituoso who was the first to perform classic Kyogen outside Japan. I was overwhelmed. Shiro Nomura, Yuriko’s Noh teacher (unusual for the scion of an old Kyogen family to become a distinguished Noh actor), performed Uto-Noh, “Birdcatcher in Hell,” with a spareness of expressive means becoming the coefficient for communicating startling, intuitive truths. A poetic theater indeed, articulating movement and stillness, sound and silence into both image and what hasn’t achieved form—or has lost it. A theater that had tasted the wellsprings. 

I was along for the ride, stage and house-managing at Live Oak Theater during runs of Kyogen comedies in English: servants tricking masters, husbands outfoxed by wives ... stories like those in The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron. Later at Live Oak, Yugen would put on a Noh-style Purgatory by W. B. Yeats, himself influenced by Ezra Pound’s Noh translations, with me in the chorus, next to Bob Graham, our production manager, old OSS man and broadcaster, who had learned stage photography from Moholy-Nagy at the Chicago Bauhaus. “My American father,” Yuriko called him. 

I helped adapt Antigone, with inspiration from Cocteau; shanghaied a few Berkeley people into service, including Stephanie Caulkins, then managing the bookstore at UC Art Museum, into the chorus for Antigone, and Peter Whigham—poet, translator and protege of Exra Pound—who translated Sotoba Komachi for a co-production with the Noh Oratorio Society, an outfit which KPFA listeners will remember. (Whigham’s translation was published in their magazine, Noh Quarter.) 

Yuriko adapted Waiting for Godot with Kyogen stylization, and through my old friend Marc Dachy in Paris, we heard that Samuel Beckett was curious—and enthused—about the idea. Yuriko’s teachers came to train the company and perform, notably when Shiro Nomura played demon and dancing girl in Dojoji, and Mansaku Nomura essayed a befuddled Mountain Priest, beset by fungus, in Mushrooms, supported by the company, Richard Benesevich in particular—and when Mansaku danced the invocatory Sanbaso to open a spectacular Takigi-noh (torchlight) performance by a Kita Noh School troupe at the UC Greek Theatre, the lights shimmering around the Bay below. 

These are almost random memories, barely scratching the surface of 30 years’ activity. There was a Flamenco-Kabuki fusion piece, based on Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding; modern Japanese plays performed with ancient stylization; Moon of the Scarlet Plums, about Crazy Horse, with Native American choreographer and Noh actor, performed at the World Expo near Nagoya—and artistic associate Erik Ehn’s Cycle Plays, five contemporary pieces in Noh cycle form, performed together only on 07-07-07.  

Much of the history’s in Theatre of Yugen, Twenty-Five Years: A Retrospective, which Erik edited. (When asked to write an introduction, I was pleased—until I realized it made me The Old Man!) 

Many performers and other theater artists have worked innovatively with Yugen over 30 years—many Asian-American actors getting a taste of classical training, for instance, or the constant presence of women onstage in a traditionally all-male form—and now a new generation’s putting on a Kyogen version of Candide (itself 250 years old this year) as celebration. The eternal optimist (played by Sheila Berotti) travels the world, in 700 year-old Japanese classic style, with co-artistic director Lluis Valls as his pessimist companion Martin. Julie Brown is the Fair Onna, and “old-timer” Ellen Brooks, ebullient Dr. Pangloss. Yuriko Doi, now director emerita, stops the show as the wily Old Woman. “The best of all possible worlds ...” Co-artistic director Jubilith Moore, who adapted and directed (with Kyogen mentor Yukio Ishida), said of both Candide and Kyogen, “It’s satire with a warm feeling, a wry smile, not a belly-laugh—a smile in recognition of human foibles.” 

But, after all that, just what does Yugen mean? An aesthetic term, long associated with Noh, sometimes translated “mysterious elegance” ... I once heard Yuriko answer that question with an image: still, snowy field in bright sunlight; a single snowflake falls, flashing against that whiteness—that’s Yugen. 



8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday at Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa, San Francisco (Project Artaud). $15-25. (Thursday, pay what you can; Saturday, post-show 30th-year gala at extra cost.) (415) 621-7978.