The Mark Taper Forum's P.L.A.Y. company--Performing for Los Angeles Youth--is touring local elementary and middle schools with its newest production, "Wondrous Tales of Old Japan." Lucky schools. And lucky anyone looking for exceptional youth theater: The company has also scheduled several performances (mostly free) for general audiences.
Those who braved Saturday's downpour to catch the show's first public performance, held at the Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, were rewarded with a world-class presentation of three folk tales--"Urashimataro," "Momotaro, the Peach Boy" and "Yuki Onna, the Snow Woman"--performed traditional Kabuki style.
Written and directed by David Furumoto, the show seamlessly blends comic and dramatic narration and dialogue with vibrant, dance-like Kabuki movement, complemented by taiko music composed by Kenny Endo. The costumes, makeup, set and lighting are stunning.
In "Urashimataro," Urashima the fisherman (Shaun Shimoda) saves a turtle (Yuria Kim) and earns a trip to the undersea palace of the Dragon King.
After four days of the amazing delights there--a jousting fish and squid (Michael Tolfo and Ova Saopeng), feasting and the hospitality of the king's lovely daughter, the Sea Princess (Karole Foreman)--Urashima returns to the surface, only to find that 400 years have gone by while he was away. Things couldn't get worse, could they? Yes, if he ignores the princess' warning about the magic box she gave him. . . .
A warning in "Yuki Onna, the Snow Woman" comes with a high price too. When a young man (Tolfo) sees his father die at the icy hands of the deadly Snow Woman (Foreman), she spares him on the condition that he never speak of it. Unfortunately, after a life of good fortune, the young man can't resist the temptation to tell his secret to his beloved, if somewhat mysterious wife. . . .
The jaunty last tale finds an elderly couple (Kim and Shimoda) praying for a child and finding one inside a giant peach. Momotaro, the Peach Boy (Tolfo), grows up and battles the terrible ogre king (Saopeng), with the help of a monkey (Kim), a dog (Foreman) and a pheasant (Shimoda).
"Wondrous" tales, indeed, with each made up of many wondrous moments. Some are as subtle as Kim's delightful, stylized head and hand motions as she sits by the river (a swath of flowing blue-green cloth rippled by black-clad koken (stage assistants) and tries to coax the giant peach to float her way. Some are as graceful as Foreman's fan manipulations and stately dance as the Sea Princess. Some are as comic, and unexpectedly powerful, as Saopeng's varied sing-song cadences as narrator.
It's difficult to pick moments that stand out, however, when the entire production shines: the polished adult cast; the variety, creativity and sumptuousness of Lydia Tanji's kimonos and other costumes; Jose Lopez's gorgeous lighting, as integral to the production as every other element; Akeime Mitterlehner's deceptively simple, ever-changing set design; and Endo's taiko score, performed onstage by Kinnara Taiko drummer Bryan Yamami. (Vivian Seki, of Zenshuji Zendeko group, alternates.)
Furumoto, who also taught the actors to do their own amazing makeup, doesn't put a foot wrong with his spellbinding script and direction.
Congratulations to the Taper for supporting a youth production of this caliber--but how much more generous and fitting it would have been to give it a run on the Taper's own stage too.
* "Wondrous Tales of Old Japan," Kaiser Permanente/Watts Counseling and Learning Center, Gymnasium, Ted Watkins Park, 1335 E. 103rd St., Los Angeles, Saturday at 11 a.m., free; Colburn School, Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, March 10 at 11 a.m. $6; New Ivar Theatre, 1605 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood, March 17 at 1 p.m., free; San Gabriel Valley area, venue and time to be announced, March 24, free. (213) 972-7589, also Colburn School, (213) 202-2287; Watts Counseling and Learning Center, (323) 564-7911. Running time: One hour.