Theatre of Yugen Performance

One of my favorite things about San Francisco is that no matter how long you live here there is always something new to discover here. Theatre of Yugen isn’t new to the city but it is new to me and it is one of those gems that I was happy to discover. A friend invited me to see a performance there yesterday and it was a charming experience.

About Theatre of Yugen

Theatre of Yugen is a group of performers who are trained in Japanese theatre techniques, which they apply to a variety of different styles of plays.

From their website:

“Whether the subject matter of our shows is classical or contemporary, and whether our performance is primarily serious or comic, we strive to project the aesthetic quality of yugen, or mysterious elegance, which gives our work a distinctive style and provides a unique experience to our audience.”

This is a San Francisco based performing group made up of international members. Although they are based here, and have been for 30 years, they tour nationally and internationally. They perform at an intimate 50-seat theatre in Potrero Hill called NOHSpace.

About the Performance

To give you an idea of what this group does, let me tell you a little bit about the performance that I saw (which runs here through December 30th). It is called A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night. As the name suggests, it was a performance consisting of five short plays; they were actually tied together with a song performance that was done in parts between the plays.

Each of the plays in this performance had content that was inspired by an existing piece of writing and a style informed by the style of a certain type of Japanese performance art and represented one of the five categories of Noh performance (which I’ll explain momentarily).

So for example, the second play was called Steadfast Memory. The content was based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale called The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The style for the performance was inspired by Bunraku Japanese theatre. The main character represented the warrior, one of the five main characters in Noh.

Storytelling Styles

Without knowing anything at all about Japanese theatre and being mostly unfamiliar with a large number of the works that these plays were based on, I really came to this whole experience with wide eyes and an open mind. The first thing that struck me, and ultimately the thing that I ended up appreciating most about what Theatre of Yugen does, is the way these plays showcased the many different styles of telling a story.

Each of the five plays seemed to combine music and words to tell the story. With the music, sometimes it was singing in English and sometimes it was singing in another language and sometimes it was just music. In addition, stories were told through props, masks, pantomime and puppetry. The first play had almost zero props and the entire scene was magically set through the descriptions by the players whereas some of the others were rich in props and told more visually.

After reading the super-informative program that they gave us I learned more about the different influences of Japanese theatre types that informed each play. I could then see that there were specific styles that influenced the way that the story was told, but even before I knew that I appreciated this aspect of the performance.

A Short Look into Japanese Theatre Styles

I won’t pretend that I suddenly know a lot about Japanese Theatre but I did learn a few basics so I thought I’d pass them along.

As I said, each of the performances was influenced by a type of Japanese theatre, with the first each having a different influence and the final one being a combination of them all. The four types of theatre were:

  1. Kyogen. This is the dialogue-based style of theatre that informed the first play. It explores natural human emotions and celebrates humanity through distinct facial expressions, precise movements and speech. This one also incorporated some funny masks and I later learned from my program that the Kyogen style is based in comedy.
  2. Bunraku. This is a puppetry-based form of theatre. Historically there was a very precise way of manipulating the puppets. The puppeteer appears on stage in full view but is covered from head to toe so that the puppet is the focus of the piece.
  3. Kabuki. This style utilizes musical theatre including traditional instruments, dance and elaborate costumes to tell the story.
  4. Noh.  My program describes this better than me so I’ll excerpt, “Noh drama, Japan’s traditional, richly symbolic theatre of masks, music, stylized and abstract movement and lyric poetry is the world’s oldest and continuously performed masked performance tradition”. It dates back 600 years. It sounds like it typically explores spirituality and morality.

The 5 Themes of Noh

I mentioned above that each play was also based around a type of Noh theater. Noh plays are divided into five styles based on the theme of their main character: a god, a warrior, a beautiful woman, a miscellaneous character (sometimes a madwoman) and a demon). So, repeating the example I shared above, the second play in the series about the tin soldier represented the warrior play in Noh.

And Even More Detail

There was actually even more detail to the themes of the plays than the slice I’ve described here, including a seasonal element that tied all five plays together. Plus there was the song cycle (based on Peter Pan) that was performed in parts between each of the plays (and was actually one of my favorite aspects of the performance). I won’t delve into those details (go see the performance if you’re in San Francisco and see for yourself!) but I will say that it must have taken a lot of time, effort, creativity and detail to piece together all of these different traditions, styles, stories and elements into a cohesive play. Beautiful work.

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