Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu’s MU, JCCSF, September 27

21 Oct

Brenda Wong Aoki has been in my radar of favorites ever since she worked with Theatre of Yugen when Yuriko Doi was first establishing its reputation for excellent Asian theater.

Aoki veered from the classical Japanese theatrical canon into story telling with great success, spinning stories from Japanese myths and folklore, ably supported by Mark Izu whose own share of classical Japanese background lies in the rarified musical form of gagaku, the music of the Japanese Imperial Household, dating from T’ang Dynasty China, Tibet and Korea. Together, the productions they produce have been singular, captivating and, sans question, unique. I might add some of their productions involved the Aoki family history in early San Francisco, also compelling.

Premiering September 27 was MU, its five-year gestation taking the couple to Japan on a U.S.-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship in 2007, involving Kimi Okada as choreographer, with Izu leading the musical ensemble of drums, koto, percussion, saxophone, sho, taiko. Aoki wrote in the program notes MU was, more or less, the last hoorah for the three-way Aoki-Izu collaboration with their son, K.K., now a sophomore at Stanford University.

Visually, the costumes were spectacular – from street routine San Francisco to the elaborate persimmon-colored sea-horse, providing fantasy and the rippling water realm effect crucial to create the changes from earth to the undersea kingdom. Joan Raymond and Keely Weiman were credited as lead costume constructors, with eight other willing hands.

The program notes were prodigious; detailed, outlining archaeological, folkloric and fairy tale sources influencing Aoki’s tale; a contemporary youth plunged to the bottom of the sea because of a mermaid, encountering a king declaring the kingdom was in peril. The young man effectively battled the worms threatening the kingdom. That he was able to survive underwater was due to a magical necklace, an ornament he surrendered to save the life of the mermaid; she, reviving, returned it to the youth. He then had to return to earth. He washed up on the beach, reflecting on the journey at the final blackout.

The plot enabled Okada to provide a marvelous pastiche of contemporary youth with cell phones, skate boards and other distractions, joining sinewy and floating movements for the undersea creatures. Aoki swiveled from hatted commentator to commanding monarch, tossing her lengthy, abundant locks in true Kabuki lion fashion, clearly relishing it. As the the mermaid lies dying, the ebbing life force was demonstrated by the snapping of large black fans, placed on the mermaid’s body, progressing from the feet towards the head, prompting the youth’s surrender of his magical amulet when told this was the sole means of saving the mermaid’s life. The trio formed an extremely effective scene, taut as the rippling sound of the opening fans before their placement on the recumbent mermaid.

It’s a very different take than Hans Christian Anderson’s, to be sure; no tail shed, no rejection of the sea creature, just the heroic journey of a young man, ably conveyed by K.K. Izu.

There were parts in Aoki’s narrative which seemed extraneous, and parts of the music where the volume was quite uncomfortable, but visually MU was magical. When I find the program in the usual welter of papers I will pay due homage to the excellent dancers and supporting musicians.

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