A Noh Christmas Carol Review
|Address:||2840 Mariposa Street - NOHspace
San Francisco, CA 94110
"A Noh Christmas Carol"
Jacob Ritts as the ghost of Mashima Jakubei (centre) seen through a circular bridge that allows spirits to pass from the supernatural world to the present.
Review by Judith M. Wilson
Photos by Alex Sinclair
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is a beloved holiday story about a profoundly unhappy man who is forced to reexamine his life from several perspectives and thus undergoes a transformation. It’s a Charles Dickens classic set in Victorian England, but its lessons are universal and timeless, and so a skillful retelling in a different cultural tradition can be highly effective. Such is the case with the Theatre of Yugen’s A Noh Christmas Carol, directed by Nick Ishimaru, which employs various forms of Japanese theater to deliver a creative, stylized version that delivers a timely message.
Noh is derived from a word that means skill or talent, and in Japanese theater, it’s a major form of classical musical drama. It is often based on traditional literature and frequently features supernatural beings, who take on a human form to help tell a story, as do the ghosts in Dickens’ novel. Simplicity and precision are hallmarks that make exacting demands of the actors, who use costumes, masks and various props to aid in defining their characters, while engaging members of the audience by stimulating the imagination.
Sukurooji, a hard master, chastises his clerk.
Shannon Davis, the shite, or main actor, plays Sukurooji Ebezo (the Scrooge equivalent) in a powerful and nuanced performance that is all the more impressive, because she reverses convention by playing a man; whereas, historically, males played female roles in Japanese theater. The cast is comprised of just five actors, and women are dominant, with all but Davis playing several characters. Annika Bergman plays The Men; Mika Kavita portrays The Women; and Adrian Deane fills the roles of the Christmas Ghosts. Jacob Ritts, the sole male performer, takes on the roles of Mashima Jakubei (Jacob Marley) and Kurogo (Bob Cratchett). The ensemble works well, with the actors taking on the challenge of a different culture’s dramatic traditions to deliver strong performances in styles that are a marked contrast to more familiar western theater.
The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet-to-Come force Sukurooji to look beyond himself.
Yugen is a concept that values beauty and incorporates more than one art form, and in that spirit, A Noh Christmas Carol includes rhythmic music and dance and also makes use of several Japanese acting styles. Noh is represented in the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come, while Mashima employs Butoh, a dance form that brings the dead to life and separates him from the ghosts. Kyogen—traditional Japanese satire—heightens the differences between the social classes and defines lower-class characters such as Kurogo, while. Kabuki sets Sukurooji apart as a member of a wealthier class and allows him to freely express his emotions.
Right: Designer Liz Brent's beautiful costumes.
Historically, Japanese theater took place outdoors, and the set reflect that tradition. The stage is in close proximity to the audience, without a curtain or platform, and is marked in its simplicity, with a bridge that allows the spirits cross from one realm to another and a painted pine tree, which is a traditional element.
Ishimaru, who is the artistic director of the Theatre of Yugen, sees community as a major theme in A Noh Christmas Carol and Sukurooji as a man who has lost his connection to the society around him. He hoards his money, but “Why do we bother having wealth if we don’t use it to enrich the lives of other people?” ask Ishimaru, who sees parallels with today’s world. In the play, supernatural beings prod Sukurooji to reconnect with society and move into a future as a changed man eager to participate in his community and improve the lives of those around him, and his enlightenment serves as an example for others.
A Noh Christmas Carol is a beautifully conceived production that takes a holiday classic and reinvents it, giving the audience a chance to see life and art from a new perspective and reflect on its lessons about humanity.
A Noh Christmas Carol plays at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco, through December 24. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatreofyugen.org.