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Noh Difference : Japanese Theater Uses Subtle Movements, Poetic Imagery

September 21, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer and

Yasko Gamo carefully took the mask of a female demon out of the rosewood china cabinet in her Corona del Mar home and gently set it on the dining room table.

The horned mask, symbolizing female jealousy, is a replica of one used by actors in the Noh theater--the highly abstract and refined Japanese theater that uses rich poetic imagery and highly stylized movement.

"Some of these (items) were given to me by my late father," Gamo said as a glass wind chime tinkled softly outside. "Not so many common Japanese go to theater to see Noh play, but because of my surroundings I have chance to see."

As a child in Japan in the 1930s, Gamo was part of a family steeped in the tradition of the Noh theater: Her uncle was the 17th generation of the Hosho family to head the Hosho Noh School in Tokyo, which is still one of the most prominent Noh theater companies in Japan and is now run by her cousin. Her father was a scholar and collector of rare books about Noh and owned a bookstore specializing in Noh books, masks and instruments.

Growing up, Gamo said, she had many opportunities to see Noh plays and observe the players and musicians backstage. And, until the world war intervened and she and other high school students were enlisted to work in arms factories, she even took lessons in shimai, Noh dancing.

All of which helps explain why Gamo, who teaches Japanese at Orange Coast College, was invited to serve as technical and cultural adviser on a committee preparing for the upcoming Orange County performance by the Kita Ryu-Noh troupe from Japan.

The 26-member troupe will perform takigi noh, which simply means Noh theater performed outdoors by firelight rather than in the traditional Noh theater. (Takigi means firewood, the source of light when the ancient theater art was originated.)

The outdoor version of the 15th-Century theater tradition will be performed in Orange County one night only at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in California Scenario, the sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi in Costa Mesa.

The Orange County performance is being presented by the consul general of Japan, UC Irvine and the Boston Co. (a Boston-based investment management and private banking firm) as part of a five-show national tour. The Orange County event is sponsored by a specially created consortium of Japanese and American individuals and businesses, in addition to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory.

As a member of the Orange County Committee for Takigi Noh, Gamo helped write the Japanese version of the program for the show.

Thumbing through a pictorial book on the Noh theater, Gamo, 61, recalled enjoying attending performances with her parents several times a year as a child.

"The costumes are very gorgeous," she said, laughing when asked if the drama seemed boring to a child: "The Noh play is usually long--it is quiet, slow movement so, as a child, sometimes bored. Not all of them are quiet, some part is pretty wild--dramatic--but the basic movement is slow."

Gamo thinks the Orange County audience will enjoy the performance by the Kita Ryu-Noh troupe, although she acknowledges that people who are unfamiliar with the Noh theater may think "it's boring because they're not used to seeing such slow, quiet movement. They (the actors) show deep feeling, (and) the stage is very plain, so it's quite different from Western drama."

When it comes to discussing the traditions of the Noh theater, Gamo defers to an expert--UC Irvine Prof. Robert Garfias, an ethnomusicologist in the anthropology department. Gamo recommended Garfias to provide background on the troupe and the art form in a free lecture at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa.

"The Noh is extremely refined theater," Garfias said in a separate interview. "The Japanese feel that you have to have a lot of knowledge in order to appreciate it--knowledge of the history of the period and the language of the poetry. The Noh drama developed in a period of great social upheaval and civil war in Japan, and it was designed to serve both as kind of a guide and solace to the population."

Audiences, Garfias said, have to be prepared to see it. Otherwise, he said, "you won't know what's going on so you're apt to miss a lot. There are no large, overt movements--no great traumatic climaxes. It's an art of great subtlety. The motion is very, very slow, and there seems to be not a lot of stage action, but a real connoisseur can watch one of these masked actors walking across the stage and tell a lot about his character."

"In the opinion of many Japanese," Garfias added, "the Noh theater really epitomizes the refinement of Japanese culture."

Gamo's own link with Japanese culture was broken in 1958, when she and her physicist husband, Hideya Gamo, moved to the United States. Hideya Gamo, who is now a professor of engineering at UCI, was hired as a research scientist at the IBM research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

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