For many audiences, seeing a show by Theatre of Yugen, which produces traditional Japanese theater, involves negotiating contradictory desires: first, to experience on its own terms an art form whose stories, styles, and sign systems are so different from those of Western drama and second, to translate that art form to Western terms, so that seeing a show is not just experiencing, but accessing and relating, and perhaps understanding and appreciating.
The 34-year-old company always does much in the way of translation, in that its shows are performed in English and it often takes on Western subjects. With its latest show, A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night, it takes a further step toward accessibility by using a Western frame. The main substance of the show is five short plays, each in a different style of traditional Japanese theater, that together constitute a cycle, what was historically a day-long program of theater (here it's just over two hours). In between each act, George and Mary Darling (Lluis Valls and Sheila Berotti) describe their experience of the night when their children Wendy, John, and Michael flew off with Peter Pan to Neverland. There is grief, there is parental guilt, there is rejoicing at homecoming -- all while assistants slowly and ritualistically attire Valls and Berotti in their Kyogen, Bunraku, Noh, or Kabuki costumes for the next act.
Adapted from stories like The Chronicles of Narnia or St. George's slaying of the dragon, the short Japanese plays are the Neverland the Darling parents worry about. They are fantastical worlds for children, but they are also laced with adult nostalgia and adult awareness that the nightmares don't always end when you close your book. That seems to be the idea, anyway, of Greg Giovanni, who wrote the plays in conjunction with the ensemble. The juxtaposition of cultures is jarring, and it never offers a true payoff. The Darlings' hoity-toity Edwardian world bears no obvious connection to the highly stylized Japanese dramas, unless you're willing to stretch and grasp for one in retrospect.
That doesn't mean the different short plays are without merit. The Bunraku adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier is particularly effective, heightening the story's surreal qualities with outsized puppets that evoke a child's perspective; everything is huge, unknowable, and potentially menacing. Costumes and makeup are elaborate and gorgeous but also terrifying in the way the masks seem to change expression when their performers move. The performances themselves are athletic feats; though slight and slow, movements are as measured and precise as a gymnast's footwork on a balance beam. Jubilith Moore, who also directs, exudes warrior-like force as a performer, her sonorous voice seeming to emanate from places in the body other singers ignore.
Despite these aesthetic pleasures, many movements, chants, and instrumentations remain very difficult to follow or appreciate. Unfortunately, Giovanni's effort to make these art forms more accessible ends up only widening the gap.
A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night continues through Dec. 30 at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa St. (at Florida St.), S.F. Admission is $15-$20.