Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW: 'Our Toes Grip the Edge'--Theatre of Yugen & mugwumpin

By Ken Bullock
Friday September 21, 2012 - 10:19:00 AM

"Artworks don't exist in bubbles, but are constantly in dialogue with other art, even if unintentionally." Which sums up the introductory remarks by mugwumpin co-founder Christopher W. White at 'Our Toes Grip the Edge,' a one evening joint performance with Theatre of Yugen at San Francisco's Z Space in Project Artaud, to allow the audience to "catch a glimpse" of two works-in-progress--one almost ready to be fully staged.  

mugwumpin, one of the most spontaneously creative theater troupes around, went first, with something from a piece they're developing on Prophecy in America for full staging after the New Year. "Not soothsaying, predicting the future, but about the consequences of not living up to promises." An ensemble of five, three women and two men, fanned out across the stage, five chanting while standing in place, eyes raised, as Joe Estlack, another mugwumpin co-founder, moved in dissociated motions and gestures with intensity to one side. One of the women stepped forward to recite a letter to Dr. King from a self-confessed "white girl," but was interrupted by a cell phone call, the others reacting with impatience. As others stepped forward, the focus shifted, new vignettes emerged, with an undertow of humor, the "storylines" and movement both continuous and strangely askew ... Masters of group dynamics in physical theater, mugwumpin constantly bridges the gap between the literal description or gesture and a concept which at once seems to hold it all together, even while it's being humorously ruptured, spilling out further movement, more gestures.  

Mohawk activist-musician Kenny Perkins introduced the fragment from 'Mystical Abyss,' written by Blake Street Hawkeyes co-founder and well-known writer-performing artist John O'Keefe and directed by Yugen founder Yuriko Doi. Perkins spoke of the world--or cosmological--view of his culture, expressed through creation stories--'Mystical Abyss' combines Mohawk and Japanese (Shinto) creation myths in storytelling, music, dance ... "My territory, my surroundings, that's where I come from ... From the opposite sides of the world ... these stories fused ... The shift is coming [later, he'll say "rift"] ... The old ones say one day we'll see trees die from the top." 

Perkins drums and chants, later joined by Narumi Takizawa on Nohkan, the transversal Noh flute, while acrobatic dancers come out onstage, the first two costumed, decorated as fish hawks, then, wide-eyed, "Oh, that's a big woman!" Perkins exclaims, for the Sky Woman, falling, trying to find land in the sea below ... (The dancers are choreographer Jesus Jacoh Cortes, Cuauhtemoc Peranda and Janelle Ayon.) The birds help the woman down where a turtle (Theatre of Yugen's Lluis Valls) serves as an island platform--Turtle Island ... and Yugen artistic director Jubilth Moore, shrouded in what looks at first to be a monk's robe, is an otter, with cunning hand gestures assisting the Sky Woman, while computer graphic animation of fantastic animal forms (by Taketo Kobayashi and Koya Takahashi) swirl around the walls behind the dancers and on their bodies, enveloping the fantastic action. 

Theatre of Yugen, for over 30 years performing here with the foundation of the rigorous classical Japanese theater--Noh and Kyogen--has worked for the past several years on this ambitious collaboration, which will bring Noh actor Masashi Nomura (his father, eminent Noh principal Shiro Nomura, choreographed his movements) from Tokyo to join with the Native American and Japanese musicians in the spectacle of these creation myths, including the Shinto tale of teh Sun Goddess teased out of hiding from a cave by a bawdy performer, the mythic origin of Japan's great performing arts tradition. The performances will be staged September 27-30 at 8 (with a 3 p.m. matinee on the 29th) at ODC Theatre, 3153 17th Street (near South Nan Ness). Opening night (with or without reception): $20-$45; other performances: $17-$30. (415) 863-9843; (which includes a blog on the work's development, On the Bridgeway.)