After hearing about Theatre of Yugen for so long, I have finally had the pleasure of attending one of their performances. The group, based in San Francisco’s Mission District, is one of the premier groups in the US producing and performing contemporary/fusion pieces grounded in, based on, built around, the aesthetics, techniques, etc. of the Japanese traditional drama forms of Noh and Kyogen.
After watching and enjoying their “A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night” (written by the Philadelphia-based Greg Giovanni), I find I have a great deal to say, as usual, but I feel at the same time hesitant. It is one thing to write for a general audience, for whomever should stumble upon this humble blog, and who should be interested in musings of a random individual such as myself; it is quite another to write commenting on, reviewing, something in which a close friend was closely involved, and knowing that members of the troupe may come across this and read it. It is one thing to speak of Theatre of Yugen, letting others know about them, and encouraging them to go see Yugen productions, and to be interested in Japanese(-inspired) theater. It is quite another to write to, for, the troupe themselves, praising or criticizing (even if almost exclusively the former) and otherwise analyzing or simply commenting upon their production.
There is so much to say, and yet I am hesitant to say anything at all. Well, but I suppose I must say something. I must, at least, record my thoughts and impressions, if for no one else, then for myself. And if others, if members of the troupe, should happen to see this, then so be it, I suppose. Shô ga nai.
The Minor Cycle is a series of five short plays, retelling traditional stories such as that of Sir George & the Dragon, or of an episode from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, set within the framing device of a series of songs sung by the characters Mr. and Mrs. Darling – the parents of Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, who have flown off with that Pan boy. This sets the tone of a theme of Edwardian England, of traditional children’s stories. Small, brightly colored kids’ chairs, hint at the idea of a nursery, that is, of all five of these stories taking place as just that, stories, within a children’s book.
I could go on to detail numerous aspects of the production, commenting on everything from the choice of this prop to the style of that interpretation, but I think that will just end up getting long, listy, and tedious. To sort of summarize, then, let me just say this – all too often, we see performances which come as a result of a mere dabbling in drawing upon these forms without a true understanding of Noh, or kyogen, of their philosophies, aesthetics, and traditions, and without true skill and experience in the techniques and forms. These pieces end up feeling too experimental, and more to the point, the sense of a lack, of a failing, is palpable. Such is not at all the case with Theatre of Yugen. The expertise, the authenticity of the knowledge, technique, talent, of all involved is clear throughout the production, in everything from voice and movement, to costume, props, and set pieces, to the structure and themes of each piece. From the makeup and costumes, to voice and movement, nothing feels like they “got it wrong.” Nothing here is Chinese or Korean or just plain mistaken – everything comes across as a well-informed, expert choice, whether it’s in Edwardian-esque costuming that perfectly recalls the silhouette or form otherwise of traditional Noh/kyogen/kabuki kimono; in the reference to the subjectivity of time – a moth lives but one season, but for the moth, that one season is an entire lifetime; in the careful, expert position of the performer’s hands, and motion of their feet, as they cross the stage in precisely authentic Noh fashion, regardless of the Western storybook character they are playing; or in the lilting tones of the performers’ chants, recited in English, and telling an English tale, but reproducing quite well the distinctive sounds of Noh, kyogen, or kabuki, conveying to the audience the specific aesthetic of each of these forms, not as a blending or a mish-mash, but authentically. The first piece, in particular, relating an encounter between Queen Lucy of Narnia and a magician on an isle of invisible creatures, feels less like a modern/contemporary piece concocted by American performers experimenting with Japanese forms, and more like a genuine, authentic Kyogen that might have existed if the traditional repertoire included classic stories of British children’s literature. For the uninitiated spectator, it most likely feels quite experimental, bizarre, and “modern” or “artsy”, but it is initiating them not into wacky, bizarre, experimental theatre so much as it is providing an initiation into elements of traditional Japanese theatre. It may seem wacky, bizarre, and experimental to some, but to those more familiar with Japanese theatre, there is an element of authenticity, of genuineness in not only technique or style, but in theme and philosophy as well, that comes through quite clearly, and personally, though it may perhaps be an odd priority to have, for me, this makes all the difference, and is the crucial foundation for an enjoyable, meaningful, piece.
Also, though I feel I am having some trouble articulating it, there is something important in this in that the main thrust is in the story, and in the style/technique/form/mode itself, and not the act, the experiment, of the fusion, the creation, the invention. For modern(ist) artists, it is not the end result that is the key to their art, but the concept behind it, the act of defiance, of experiment. For Magritte or Duchamp, it is not the final result, the painting of the pipe labeled “This is Not a Pipe,” or the porcelain urinal labeled “Fountain,” in its color or texture, in its aesthetics – least of all in the fine craftsmanship and technique of its production – that matters, but instead, the focus is in this question of ‘what is art’? This may seem quite deep, deeper conceptually than a Rembrandt, but in its effort to be conceptual, experimental, a-traditional, or anti-traditional, it is actually quite frivolous and superficial, even nonsensical. It lacks the depth of tradition, of skill, of refined technique, of deep, strong connection to a traditional historical cultural context, possessed by someone like Rembrandt, or better yet, someone like Wen Zhengming or Zhao Mengfu, emulating the ancients. For traditional Noh and kyogen performers, for professional kabuki actors, the myriad of elements of style, technique, and form of traditional theatre is not an experiment; it is not something cherry-picked or dabbled in, played around with, gamed, but rather something one devotes oneself to, practicing and refining one’s connection to a deep and strong tradition. The same, it seems, goes for Theatre of Yugen as well. The Noh or kyogen elements in Theatre of Yugen do not seem tacked on, or mixed-in, but are fundamental. While many other contemporary theatre companies are like Robert Rauschenberg, picking up all sorts of things and throwing them together to create a thoroughly modernist, experimental, assemblage, Yugen is more like Xu Bing, someone deeply and thoroughly trained in, expert in, and philosophically devoted to, an artistic tradition, drawing upon that tradition to create something decidedly new and untraditional, but which nevertheless does not stand opposed to, nor is in any way disrespectful to or dismissive of, that tradition.
All that said, I find it interesting that the Theatre of Yugen (best as I gather) produces/performs not traditional pieces, but chiefly new compositions, and quite often, Western/fusion pieces. How does one practice Noh or kyogen truly, authentically, without practicing and performing traditional pieces in the traditional manner? How does one maintain the authentic technique of someone skilled, experienced, well-practiced in the traditional form, without it transforming into something very different, some Theatre of Yugen style that rings untrue? A formal certificate hanging in the lobby and signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs supports the idea that they are doing something right, that what they are doing is authentic and traditional to some significant degree, and some, if not all, members of the company do have experience practicing, training, with genuine traditional masters in Japan. But, still, I wonder.
If the following goes against the intentions, philosophy, or desires of the founders/leaders of Yugen, my sincere apologies, but what a thing it would be, to see them perform not in a black box theatre, reminiscent of the experimental and modernist, but on a proper Noh stage, possibly welcoming masters from Japan, doing training workshops, practices, and performances of traditional pieces, in addition to the occasional contemporary American creation. How I would love to see something like that, and, even, to become involved and to take part.
I have gotten off-topic here, towards the end, but I suppose, by way of a conclusion, “A Minor Cycle” was powerful, beautiful, fun but also intellectually stimulating, and managed to incorporate Edwardian English stories into something that nevertheless rings true as, on some level, genuine and authentic to the traditions, aesthetics, techniques, philosophies, of Noh, kyôgen, and kabuki. I regret that I do not currently live in a city where I can be surrounded by, let alone more directly involved in / connected with, such cultural activity, more regularly, and I eagerly look forward to seeing the Theatre of Yugen again.