Japanese Artistry at the 2016 San Francisco International Arts Festival

21 May

Cowell Theater at Fort Mason provided the venue for the opening performance May 19 of the Hiroshi Koike Bridge Project at the 2016 San Francisco International Arts Festival. The famous chilly winds of San Francisco Bay also were out whipping up the waters and chilling the audience as it walked the length of the pier to Cowell Theater’s new entrance.

Titled The Restaurant of Many Orders and supported by the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network, the 7 p.m. was the first of two performances constituting the three-person ensemble’s U.S. premiere.  It possessed many features making Japanese theatre such a treat and absorbing experience, even when the supporting sound is recorded. Let me enumerate: Asikazu Nakamura, shakuhachi; Shitamachi Kyodai, percussion; Toshio Nakagawa, piano with masks by the Balinese artisans I Wayan Tanggu and I Made Sutarka. Makoto Matushima is credited with art and Seiichiro Mori with props and Lighting by Takayuki Tomiyama. Responsible choreography and direction was byHiroshi Koike.

Rita Felicano expanded on the story of hunters seeking game, encounter a storm, getting lost until discovering the restaurant Wildcat Inn. She said the original story made the hunters English. Following instructions. two of them enter, following instructions, only to find themselves possible objects for dinner. Apparently the story was acquired by the Japanese.  Three superlative animal masks transform the hunters into forest animals, the configurations very traditional Japanese in style.

The three performers are Tatsuro Koyano, Ayako Araki, and Akira Otsuka. What a trio they are. Two are tall, willowy and fairly young,  the third stocky, of medium height, clearly the senior of the three , who may have passed forty. For eloquence of body they are fantastic for the myriad of body gestures and expressive movements,  all mouth-gapingly terrific.

The opening smoke wafted ahead of the players’ entry, one shape looking like a creeping dragon, fitfully illumined. The sounds followed the story line faithfully.

Using a low semi-circle construction as their stage, two signboards and a portable structure to indicate a doorway, the trio present themselves in terribly correct gentlemen hunter garb, using long metallic poles to indicate weapons, sticking them in holes in the semi-circular structure from time to time;  expressions, postures and interplay would do credit to the Marx Brothers. There didn’t seem to be an eye-brow lift, shoulder shrug, weight shift or body lunge  left not utilized. Off center balances were remarkable with front and center to the audience seemed to complete a paragraph or episode in the story. The deftness used with the props was like watching a master calligrapher arranging ink, paper and brush. In the end, the shirts of the trios were drenched, the completeness of performance visibly illustrated.

Twenty-four hours later, my mind replays ambiance, gestures, filled with admiration and satisfaction over this gift from the Land of the Rising Sun.

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