Friday, April 23, 2004



Kyasaku (Gilbert Molina) restrains his step-daughter Omitsu (Fan Xing) from attacking her rival-in-love Osome (Lei Sadakari, not pictured).

Kabuki family tradition

When Chris Doi and Daniel Akiyama found out that they were going to be in Kennedy Theatre's latest Kabuki production, they didn't realize that they were perpetuating a lineage that began 63 years ago.

Back in 1941, both of the young men's grandfathers appeared in "Namu Amida Butsu," one of the first Kabuki productions the University of Hawaii originally staged at Farrington Hall. Now Doi and Akiyama take the stage in the UH-Manoa's first Kabuki play in five years, "Nozaki Village."

"Nozaki Village" (Shinpan Utazaimon)

Where: Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii-Manoa

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and April 28 to 30. Also 8 p.m. May 1 and 2 p.m. May 2.

Tickets: $18 general; $15 seniors, military, and UH faculty and staff; $12 non-UHM students and youth; $3 UHM students with valid Spring photo ID

Call: 956-7655

Doi is the principal actor, playing Hisamatsu, a pawn shop apprentice who falls in love with Osome, the shop owner's daughter (Lei Sadakari), but yet has been betrothed since boyhood to Omitsu, his stepsister (Fan Xing) living back in his home village. Complicating matters is Kosuke, the shop's greedy and scheming clerk (Alvin Chan), who plans to steal a large sum of money from his place of employ with the unwitting help of Hisamatsu.

(The production is handsomely staged -- complete with two hanamichi, or ramps, that extend into the audience on either side of the set -- by first-time director Dr. Julie Iezzi, with invaluable help from assistant director Allyson Paris, choreographer Gertrude Tsutsumi and musical director Dr. Ricardo Trimillos. Why "invaluable" will be explained later.)

While the first act of "Nozaki Village" has its comedic moments in the style of sewamono (a domestic, merchant class style of Kabuki), the second act is more serious and with stylized choreography in the same tone of the closely related Bunraku (puppet play), complete with a series of takemoto (narrators) -- of which Akiyama is one.

Both of Doi's and Akiyama's middle names are taken from their grandfathers -- Masato and Mitsuo, respectively. While neither of them are replicating the kinds of roles their elders had six-plus decades ago, they're pleased that, in their own way, they're honoring what was done before them.

"I know that my grandfather will be attending one of the performances," Doi said before rehearsals one night last week, "and I'm glad to know that I'm following in his footsteps."

Akiyama actually went through the drama department's archives to verify what his grandfather told him when he saw his grandson in the UH's previous Kabuki production of "Summer Festival" back in 1999.

"He told me then that he had a walk-on part as a samurai -- for which he got an A! -- so I checked the archives, and there in the program I found his name, Mitsuo Akiyama, and Masato Doi, Chris' grandfather." (Unfortunately, the Akiyama elder is not expected to attend due to illness.)

Omitsu (Fan Xing, right) has been promised to Hisamatsu, who is in love with Osome (Lei Sadakari, left).

ANOTHER INTERESTING backstory to "Nozaki Village" is that the director, over the months of preparation and rehearsal leading up to today's opening night, had to take some time off in order to give birth to twins.

Iezzi said she kept in touch with her compatriots via e-mail and telephone during her time away from the play, but now with a household of mother, aunt, husband, a couple of newborns and a two-year-old daughter bewildered over the loss of attention as a previously only child, she welcomes the return to her work.

"I'm excited to be back -- it's like leaving a budding flower and coming back to it as it blossoms. Over the next 10 days of rehearsals, I expect it to be in full bloom. It's been great help to work with such an experienced team."

Before that were months of preparation that date back to November, where guest Kabuki actors, musicians and a technical advisor from Japan helped train the students.

"This marks the 80th year of English language Kabuki productions at UH," Iezzi said, "and our reputation is such that we're well known in Japan." Like Doi and Akiyama's grandfathers, Iezzi hopes to perpetuate the line of distinguished Asian Theatre faculty, known for their work in Kabuki, before her, from Dr. Earl Ernst through the now-retired Dr. James Brandon.

The specialized and elaborate costuming, in storage until now, comes from Japan's Shochiku company.

"Our students are fortunate that they get to work with the real thing," choreographer Tsutsumi said. "Things like the wigs and kimonos are authentic and made by specialists."

Iezzi says she chose this particular play "because of the balance of male and female characters -- although some of the male roles are played by females, which is a switch from the usual men-playing-women. Also 'Nozaki Village' is a very active play, and I like the intricate interplay between the music and the staging.

"Both need to 'breathe' together -- the tempo of the music with the line reading -- in order for it to work, particularly in the second act, where what I call 'the power of 3' -- the actor, narrator and shamisen player -- have to work together to create the right mood to make the story's point.

"The audience will see a variation of styles between the two acts, so it's a challenge to do justice to both aspects of the play," she said.

Actor Chan also finds it a challenge to break from the usual Western-styled acting techniques to "the more stylized movement and speaking patterns of Kabuki. But it's rewarding, because once we don the wigs, the lavish costumes and work on this extravagant set, you can't help but just go out and do it to the best of your abilities."

COMPARED TO Brandon's previous popular productions of jidaimono (historical) Kabuki, music director Trimillos (himself a veteran of UH-produced Kabuki), said that "Nozaki Village" "has more emphasis on storyline and less on spectacle which, to me, provides more of a challenge for the actors, particularly since the first and second acts have such different moods. Even though the play is of one story, the first act is light, funny and clever, while the other is of high emotion and tragedy.

"But this cast, which I think is the most ensemble of the Kabuki productions I've been involved with, they work very well together," he said.

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