Arts & Events

New: Around & About Theater: Mansaku-no Kai, Japanese Classical Comedy, the Counterpoint to Noh

By Ken Bullock
Monday May 07, 2012 - 01:49:00 PM

Most theater-goers are familiar with Noh, at least from photos or in film: spare stage with musicians and chorus sitting on the boards, lead actor in gorgeous brocades and usually a mask, moving in a stylized way--something fantastic, tragedy from myth and legend of the Japanese past ... 

Kyogen, Noh's complement of comedy, is less familiar. It's less distant, less recondite. The stories are like our own medieval farces, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron: servants tricking masters, wives getting it over on husbands, priests made fun of. The costumes are more rustic, the stage even sparer: no music, usually, or chorus, seldom masks ... but plenty of slapstick-like conundrums, in a style of rigorous movement that could be compared to martial arts--and puns. Kyogen itself means Crazy Words, and is related to Zen language concepts. Together with Noh--"Nohgaku," as they're jointly referred to--it's the oldest ongoing theater form practiced in the world. 

Mansaku-no Kai, the Kyogen troupe here from Tokyo, performing Thursday and Friday nights for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, features one of the living masters of the genre, Mansaku Nomura, now in his 80s, but at the height of his style. His father, known during his career as Manzo VI (the family has performed Kyogen for over seven generations), was the most famous Kyogen actor of his time, and the first to take the art outside Japan in the 50s and 60s, to Europe, the States (early 60s in the Bay Area)--and China. (Mansaku Nomura has talked about the cave painting outside Beijing their hosts there showed the Nomura family as a surprise: ancient pictures of Chinese circus, with the clown wearing the yellow footgear--"tabi," in Japanese, "socks"--peculiar in theater to Kyogen actors, showing what a long lineage preceded Kyogen's adoption by the Shogun's court over 600 years ago, and its elevation to classical status.) 

Mansaku Nomura's generally regarded as one of the very finest living performers, inheritor of his father's technical expertise. He's bringing, with his troupe, three unusual plays: Suminuri (Black Crocodile Tears), in which a servant convinces his master that his mistress' weeping is manipulative, with the help of some ink; Tsuki-mi Zato (Moon-Viewing Blindman), in which a blindman (Mansaku Nomura) remarks how different two people can be, not knowing it's just one man who's tricking him--and Kubihiki (Neck-Pulling), showing a famous warrior cornered by a demon, who wants his timid daughter to eat the hero, leading to a wrestling match and more (one of the Kyogen plays which features masks--and a little bit of satire of Noh seriousness ... ) 

This program will only be presented here and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., the two stops of this tour. 

Mansaku Nomura is a traditional actor who's interested in the future, and in collaborations with contemporary forms ... He taught the Fool character in Kurosawa's film 'Ran' Kyogen dances, and his son, Mansai, now a TV and movie personality in Japan, played the Blind Hermit Boy whose appearance concludes that film. Mansaku has been a mentor to Yuriko Doi, foundr of SF's Theatre of Yugen in 1979, for many years the only troupe in North America that performed Kyogen plays in English and practiced the physical styles of Noh and Kyogen. 

I first met Yuriko in June, 1980 at a Jean-Louis Barrault mime performance at Zellerbach Hall, and saw the Nomura brothers in a memorial performance for their father about a month later. Hooked, I was lucky enough to study with Mansaku Nomura the following summer at UCLA, and later visited him in Tokyo. Kyogen is full of the magic of ancient traditions, yet completely fresh, new at every performance--the paradox of theater itself. 

"[Kyogen's] fundamental form of expression is laughter, lightness, joy, celebration," says Mansaku Nomura. come celebrate with the master--and laugh! 

Thursday and Friday, 7 p. m. at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter near Mason, San Francisco, with a workshop open to ticketholders (students of movement arts invited to participate; others invited to watch) on Wednesday from 11:45 on 8th Street; details on $20-$50 (415) 771-6900