Spiritual journey


POSTED: Friday, March 06, 2009

The University of Hawaii-Manoa theater program has a Japanese theater tradition that goes back almost 70 years, but even so, this year's production of “;Sumida River”; is unusual. For the first time in two decades, a student cast will perform a noh classic rather than kabuki or kyogen.





        Place: Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii-Manoa

Dates: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; continues at 8 p.m. March 12 to 14, and 2 p.m. March 17. Pre-show chats at 7 p.m. Friday and March 14 at East-West Center Gallery.


Tickets: $18; $16 seniors, military and UH staff; $12 students; $5 UH-Manoa students


Call: 483-7123 or visit www.etickethawaii.com




“;Sumida River”; (”;Sumidagawa”;) is the story of a woman's search for her kidnapped son. Project director Julie Iezzi, the mother of three young children, can relate.

“;It's a very human story, a mother's search for a lost child, and I think it's a story that can resonate with anybody—that attachment and that love of a child ... there's child slavery that goes on today all over the world. It's not something that people generally think about (but) it happens everywhere. That, for me, resonated.”;

The production is the world premiere of a new English translation of “;Sumidagawa”; by noh expert Richard Emmert, who also is co-directing with noh actor Akira Matsui.

The involvement of the two visiting experts is essential because—with the exception of the English dialogue—every aspect of the production conforms to the centuries-old traditions of Japanese theater. Cast members have been preparing for the show since August; to allow as many students as possible to participate, two casts will alternate on stage.

It's been 20 years since UH last presented noh. Iezzi's predecessor, James Brandon, concentrated on kabuki. Iezzi herself has extensive training in kabuki voice and music, and she also studied kyogen, a third type of Japanese theater, so she added kyogen to the mix of the production.

But presenting noh required someone with Emmert's background. “;Whenever you do something, I think you have to have a strong base in it yourself to really ... understand if everything is working properly, and you also have to have connections in that traditional world in Japan,”; Iezzi said.

She added that noh requires a higher sensibility from the audience as well.

“;The entry level into noh for an average audience member is a little bit higher. It's harder to grasp at first,”; she said. “;There is not a whole lot of action. It is more of an emotional spiritual journey that a main character goes through, and so, as an audience (member), you sit and let the sound and the movement unfold. I don't think we have other theatrical experiences like that.”;

Bringing noh to Kennedy Theatre hasn't been easy, but “;Sumida River”; is a result of Iezzi's commitment to present Japanese theater at the venue, a standard set by Brandon.

One of the challenges was in costuming: Noh costumes aren't available “;off the rack”; because they require wider bolts of cloth than are used for regular kimono, so cost can be a budget-breaker. Add to that the cost of bringing to UH internationally recognized experts for extended residencies, and Iezzi's responsibilities became as much about fundraising and sleuthing out suppliers as they were about the creative process of staging a show.

“;I've learned a lot about textiles for this production,”; she said. “;I spent half of my time (on a visit to Japan) last year hunting down old kimonos with the right embroidered colors and the right designs ... and then finding someone who was willing to ... make the garment for us.”;

Having Emmert around to translate, and to direct and train the students gave Iezzi more time to tackle other duties.

“;We do a Japanese theater production every other year, so essentially there's a year of fundraising and translating and a year in production. I've done that since I was hired.”;

Many people know noh as great literature, she added, but presenting it on stage, even if only once every 20 years, reminds Hawaii that it is also great theater.