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It's Kabuki for Kids, but It's Not Easy

The highly dramatic style was as unfamiliar to the Taper's PLAY actors as it was to young audiences.


It's a challenging moment for both audiences and actors in "Wondrous Tales of Old Japan," when a character's grief-stricken wail at his father's death is loudly echoed in exaggerated tones by the show's onstage narrator.

At that point, in the elementary and middle school auditoriums where the show is playing, "there's some laughter," said writer and director David Furumoto.

"It's not until the narrator's second cry that they actually go, 'OK, this is serious'--the narrator is picking up the emotion of the character onstage. That's something that happens in Kabuki plays--the trading off of emotional states and a heightening of the emotion."

"Wondrous Tales," which features a score by taiko drum expert Kenny Endo, was originally commissioned by Peter Brosius, artistic director of the nation's flagship youth theater, Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis for the 1998 season there.

Still, bringing this version, sumptuous but streamlined for the tour, to Southland students would seem a gutsy choice for the Mark Taper Forum's PLAY company (Performing for Los Angeles Youth) and its producing director, Corey Madden. (Brosius is PLAY's former artistic director.)

Abstract and symbolic, with highly exaggerated movement, growling exclamations, singsong vocalizations, percussive and plaintive music, bizarre, face-transforming makeup, and multilayered, elaborate costumes--Kabuki is not your average middle schooler's entertainment du jour. Even most adult Westerners tend to view this ancient Japanese art form as too exotic for comfort.

Furumoto's play is an adaptation of favorite Japanese folk tales from his childhood--a fisherman's fantastic undersea odyssey; a woodcutter's encounter with the demonic Snow Woman; a heroic ogre-fighter--but it isn't strictly classic Kabuki. Not only is it in English, but women, not men, play women's roles. Nor, noted Endo, has classical Kabuki been a youth theater medium in Japan.

But Endo, who spent four weeks rehearsing Bryan Yamami and Vivian Seki, two professional taiko musicians who alternate in the performances, praises the "tremendous integrity" of the show. His score, played on traditional Kabuki instruments, includes classic drumming patterns that represent soft falling snow, a snowstorm, ocean waves, a rushing river, exit and entrance themes and "the sound of being in the mountains."

"Every effort has been made to give a true sense of what this theater form is," he said.

"It's been a wonderful blending of creative energies," Furumoto said. "From the designers [Akeime Mitterlehner's sets, Lydia Tanji's costumes, Jose Lopez's lights] to the music to being able to work with these wonderful actors."

Work is the operative word. To prepare them for their roles, Furumoto put Karole Foreman, Yuria Kim, Ova Saopeng, Shaun Shimoda and Michael Tolfo through "Kabuki boot camp."

"I had a very short time to teach people who had no idea what Kabuki theater was. That first week of rehearsals--six days a week, at least eight hours a day--we concentrated just on movement. We didn't even look at the text."

"We worked really hard; the director inspired us," said Foreman, who plays Yuki Onna the Snow Woman in addition to the graceful Sea Princess and other roles.

Furumoto was inspired too. Foreman, a stranger to Kabuki when she auditioned, gave the director a new insight into the character of the Snow Woman, a role that he had cast with a male actor in the Minneapolis production.

"She gave me a sense of the anger in this spirit who had taken human form," Furumoto said, "and, what I had not seen before, the pain of her turning back into this elemental spirit again, the dying of the human part of her."

Foreman relishes the Snow Woman's transformation onstage as "high diva drama," but Furumoto also compliments her graceful performance as the Sea Princess in "Urashimataro," about a fisherman's double-edged reward for a good deed. Foreman, who must do a stately court dance while manipulating a fan, was initially "terrified" by the role's formality.

Flowing Movements Are Part of the Role

"There's intention behind every single thing you do, from a head movement to a hand gesture," she said. "It was really nice to kind of fall into your own center and just enjoy the moment."

Kim found that her background in hula, with its flowing arm and hand movements, helped in playing the mother in "Momotaro, the Peach Boy." As the woman who finds a child in a giant peach that floats down a river (a rippling cloth), Kim must coax the peach to her with a song and subtle, coquettish gestures to create a mood that she describes as "sweet, gentle enticement."

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