Theatre of Yugen in the News

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Little Bunnies

Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by learning some basics in kyogen movement and song. Theatre of Yugen’s Artistic Director Nick Ishimaru will teach the principles of posture and movement, then teach the participants a simple song to sing. Participants will learn the value of physical focus, as well as the fundamentals of singing and chanting. The workshop concludes with the demonstration of a short dance while students sing along. Age 5+.

  • May 21: East Palo Alto Public Library, 6:30 PM

  • May 22: Foster City Public Library, 7 PM

  • May 25: Atherton Public Library, 11 AM

  • May 28: Pacifica Public Library, 3:30 PM

Giving Face

Theatre of Yugen’s Artistic Director Nick Ishimaru will present different types of masks used in traditional Japanese theatre and discuss their history and usage in performance. Participants will also learn a song and dance called "The Rabbit."

  • May 25: Belmont Public Library, 2 PM

Theatre of Yugen will be performing at the Japanese Culture Fair in Santa Cruz on Saturday, June 8 at 1:00 PM!  Chill out with kyogen in the park!  Free admission, with many vendors and performers from 11 - 5 PM

Theatre of Yugen will be performing at the Sonoma County Matsuri Festival in Santa Rosa on Sunday, May 19 at 3:30 PM!  Come see kyogen in the park as we celebrate summer with some of our favorite North Bay residents!  Free admission, with many vendors and performers from 11 - 5 PM

Juilliard Park 227 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Theatre of Yugen will be performing at the Sonoma County Matsuri Festival in Santa Rosa on Sunday, May 7 at 2:20 PM!  Come see kyogen in the park as we celebrate summer with some of our favorite North Bay residents!  Free admission, with many vendors and performers from 11 - 5 PM

Juilliard Park 227 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

When Nick Ishimaru decided to direct Hideki Noda’s “The Red Demon,” he never could have imagined how relevant the production would be come showtime.

The interim artistic director of Theatre of Yugen originally chose the work — a slapstick parable on xenophobia — because its themes are relevant to American anxieties.

“It deals with issues of racism and immigration, and of diaspora and finding homeland,” Ishimaru says of the play, which opens Thursday, Oct. 27, at NohSpace in San Francisco. The play magnifies a community’s reaction to an outsider to what Ishimaru calls the “spoofed edge of reality.”

However, the parody is getting closer to reality every day. Its basic premise — a stranger speaking an unintelligible language washes onto the shore of a village and is met with hostility and fear-mongering — directly translates to human prejudice against the foreign “other.” Ishimaru compares the stranger’s origin story with the Syrian refugee crisis and fundamental questions about immigration. A scene in the second act points to the shifting dialogue in America about sexual assault, especially since Donald Trump’s leaked “Access Hollywood” tape.

Ishimaru also values the play’s more universal lessons, an essential hallmark of the Theatre of Yugen, which has produced Japanese fusion theater since Yuriko Doi founded the company in 1978.

A recent Yugen production, titled “Mystical Abyss,” blended Iroquois and Japanese creation myths to explore cross-cultural commonalities concerning death and rebirth.

“There are so many ways that completely disparate cultures ally with one another,” says Ishimaru. “I think we find great value in celebrating those things and bringing that to the forefront. That’s where the real value in our company comes from.

“We have our museum-style presentation — we have the preservation of our cultural and our performance history, which is extremely important. But just as important is being able to show that we have a mutual humanity.”

Shared humanity is in some ways characteristic of the 14th century Japanese theater forms of Noh and Kyogen that the Theatre of Yugen is built upon. It’s one of a handful of such companies in the nation. Ishimaru, a self-described analyzer and academic first and performer and director second, defines Kyogen as comedies developed out of the human condition. Noh dramas have a theological grounding and focus on catharsis and spiritual suffering after death.

“The Red Demon” itself is a contemporary Japanese play rather than a Noh or Kyogen work, though traces of the two can be found in it. Theatre of Yugen prefers experimentation — blending new and old, East and West — to strict tethering to tradition.

“I really think that because of our history of intercultural collaboration, we have something that goes well beyond a ‘traditional this’ or a ‘classical that,’” says Ishimaru. “We are something that is always vital and always relevant.”

Mentored by former Artistic Director Jubilith Moore, Ishimaru left to pursue his doctorate at the University of Hawaii before returning to take the helm, knowing the gravity of the position.

“Were the lights to go off, what would we do with this treasure trove of knowledge and information?” Ishimaru says.

The onus of artistic preservation weighs heavily on him and the nearly 40-year-old Theatre of Yugen, a modest 50-seater that has weathered the gradual disappearance of small art spaces throughout San Francisco. It’s lasted not only as keeper and innovator of historic disciplines, but also as the guardian of a culture persistently pillaged to make what Ishimaru describes as hollow, appropriative and orientalist art.

“We are a niche of a niche,” says Ishimaru. “If we were to disappear, obviously most people would never even know that we had been here in the first place. But we serve a real legitimate purpose in allowing this kind of art, in allowing our traditional theaters to survive.”

Theatre of Yugen’s position is somewhat paradoxical — a small company dealing in relatively obscure theater, working to capture the vastness of humanity unbound by cultural barriers.

“The Red Demon” stands as an example of that ambition.

As rehearsal begins on a Wednesday night, the minimal four-person cast files into the small Mission District venue. Soon afterward they are scrambling, switching among 15 roles in the first scene alone.

“This production is talking about breaking down barriers between people and discovering humanity in things we didn’t identify as human in the first place,” Ishimaru says. “That’s exactly the kind of show we need to be doing.”

Brandon Yu is a Bay Area freelance writer. Email:

The Red Demon: By Hideki Noda, translated by Roger Pulvers. Thursday, Oct. 27-Nov. 13. Theatre of Yugen, NohSpace, 2840 Mariposa St., S.F. $18-$25. (415) 621-0507.

'Red Demon' at NOHspace

Theatre of Yugen was founded in 1979 by Yuriko Doi, at the time the only American theater company to feature the classical Japanese theater arts, tragic and comic, of Noh and Kyogen.

But Doi, who had been involved with the Tokyo underu, underground theater, in the 60s, also wanted to stage both older and modern Western and Japanese plays featuring stylized movement and production styles from Nohgaku (Noh and Kyogen) and a broader range of sources.

Going on 40 years later, 'Red Demon,' a 1997 Japanese play by Hideki Noda, as translated by Roger Pulvers, easily finds its place in the succession of classical, modern and adapted plays Yugen has produced to realize this ideology.

Nick Ishimaru, interim artistic director, found 'Red Demon' in an anthology and "was immediately captivated by ... how delightfully funny this play is ... how relevant the material is to our immediate lives ... and ... how little adaptation the script needed to be relatable to an American audience."

'Red Demon' bears some simularity to the kind of play that developed in the 60s out of the postwar "Theatre of the Absurd," using techniques from Surrealism and other avant-garde movements, often a combination of realistic and fantastic storytelling and an almost metaphysical focus on the condition and fate of humanity.

It's told like a long flashback, the action starting at the end, then restarting sequentially as an admittedly "slow-thinking" man narrates what happened to his sister who has committed suicide after being rescued with her brother and another man following a storm at sea, after a bizarre series of events in the fishing village where they're all from.

At the heart of the almost fabulous tale that materializes bit by bit onstage is the sudden appearance of a strange, manlike creature from the sea, seeming to babble gibberish, who the villagers take for a man-eating demon and intend to do in, until the brother and sister, sometimes helped (and sometimes hindered) by the village liar and would-be Don Juan, convince the others to relent--and then the sister begins to communicate with the grotesque interloper ...

The excellent cast, directed by Ishimaru, portraying all and sundry in this folktale-gone-wild is just four energized actors, three of them shifting roles like chameleons, all adept at delivering both the comedy and drama the play demands. New to Yugen are both Ayelet Firstenberg, who plays, among others, the sister (dubbed "That Woman" by the irate villagers), but also the Old Fisherman who the locals turn to for advice--and Steven Ho as Tombi (among others), the "idiot" brother.

Longtime Yugen collaborator Enormvs Muñoz, a skilled comedian and intense physical performer, plays Mizukane, the local tale-teller, with presence and deft comic timing--and Yugen principal for two decades Lluis Valls--one of the finest physical theater actors in the Bay Area, a unique performer--takes on the initially inarticulate role of the title character/creature with great skill and invention, finding unusual creative ways to communicate both the Demon's alienation and his strange sensibilities. It's a great, more than comic jolt when the Demon in an effusion of enthusiasm tries to get across just what he's there for--and his heartfelt "explanation" is both a puzzling conundrum and yet too familiar.

Production design--Yusuke Soi's scenery and props, Maximillian Urruzmendi's lighting, Kevin Sweetzer's sound and Liz Brent's costumes--compliment the ensemble's constant action and the play's unorthodox theme.

'Red Demon' fnctions theatrically as both a kind of exotic entertainment, with something close to the unsettling quality of black humor, and as a cryptic-not so cryptic moral parable of tribalism, the other and identity ... like Ishimura has said, both immediately relevant yet timeless.

At NOHspace in Project Artaud in San Francisco's Mission District through November 13. Info at