Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW: Theatre of Yugen's Remarkable Mystical Abyss

By Ken Bullock
Friday September 28, 2012 - 04:24:00 PM

In its 35th year, Theatre of Yugen has been bringing Japanese classical theater (Noh, the classical tragedy, and Kyogen, classical comedy, Noh's complement--together, as Nogaku, the oldest continuous theater form in the world) during that time to the Bay Area, and busy adapting modern plays to those rigorously physical styles and fusing them with other, sometimes radically different methods to come up with something new.  

Yuriko Doi, Yugen's founder, has cultivated her vision of the ancient and modern, a veteran of the "underu" underground Tokyo theater of the 60s, and longtime student of Kyogen master Mansaku Nomura and Noh principal Shiro Nomura. She has produced Yeats' 'Pugatory' as a kind of Noh play, Sophocles' 'Antigone' in a mixture of old Japanese styles, taken Garcia Lorca's 'Blood Wedding' and married it to both flamenco and Kabuki (with a Kabuki actor playing the ill-fated Bride in a deadly dance with a female flamenco Groom), as well as many other cross-cultural gratings on the branches of world theater, which have borne strange and delicious fruits indeed.

Now Doi, who stepped down as artistic director some years ago, is staging her valedictory piece, after years of work on it with an array of collaborators from all over--and it's only on through this weekend: the remarkable 'Mystical Abyss,' a combine of Japanese and Native American creation myths, with A Noh actor from Japan (splendid Masashi Nomura, son of Shiro, who devised his choreography, playing both a wrathful female spirit and the sun goddess, who recluses herself, taking light from the world), Noh musicians, a Mohawk musician-activist (steadfast Kenny Perkins), dancers from Ballet Folklorico in Mexico City, as well as old Yugen hands Lluis Valls (extraordinary as the turtle on whom the world rises from the primordial waters, morphing into a leather-jacketed narrator, reeling out Blake Street Hawkeyes co-founder John O'Keefe's delirious, slangy retelling of the old tales, and Yugen artistic director Jubilith Moore as an otter presiding over the Sky Woman's fall to earth at the beginning of things)--surrounded by a swirling, truly psychedelic (has that word its original meaning lately, outside of this?) scenographic display of animated shapes and colors, animal spirits and the movement of powers, by a team of animators from Japan.
It's like nothing, exactly, I've ever seen before--not a pageant, not "performance" or ritual art, though drawing in part from both, as well as wildly different styles of theater, dance and visual arts ... Something of its impulse and attack may be glimpsed in what Doi told me she was trying to say to the performers in rehearsal: to dance without meaning ... just in celebration of creation itself, I gather--the story and meaning of it would take care of itself, as these stories have since time immemorial.
The costumery, the lighting, the very rapt atmosphere in the ODC Theater all contribute to the wonderful feeling of something from the past projected forward into the future, taking us along with it as witnesses to what Jubilith Moore, in a reception after opening, said in honor of Doi--that she has a vision ... and here it is, for us to share.
I hope you will share it--but the run is short, the performers must leave for other commitments. 'Mystical Abyss' ends on Sunday.
(On Saturday, after the matinee and before the evening show, there's a Japanese crafts fair in the lobby at ODC, with interactive-participatory activities.)
Theatre of Yugen, 'Mystical Abyss,' Friday-Saturday nights at 7; Saturday afternoon at 3, Sunday afternoon at 2. ODC Theater, 17th Street at Shotwell, just off South Van Ness. $17-$45. (415) 863-9834; (415) 621-04507.