Japanese Masterpiece, ‘The Doll Sisters,’ Will Return to La Mama

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From October 23 to November 2, 2008, Manhattan’s La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and Japan’s Atelier Asakura will revive “The Doll Sisters,” a masterpiece combining puppets with ancient and contemporary Japanese performing styles.

The production is being mounted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Praemium Imperiale (Takamatsu no Miya Memorial World Cultural Award), a prize for artists that has been awarded since 1989 at the suggestion of the Emperor of Japan. The honor is intended to be a “Nobel Prize in art” and an expansion on the Nobel Prize in Literature to other fields of fine art.

Performers of The Doll Sisters Ningyo Shimai from Japan. Left to right: Jun Tanaka, Mieko Yuki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki.
Performers of The Doll Sisters (Ningyo Shimai) from Japan. Left to right: Jun Tanaka, Mieko Yuki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki.

In October, 1978 Setsu Asakura, already the most noted stage designer of contemporary Japan, made her La MaMa directing debut with “The Doll Sisters” (Ningyo Shimai) by Taeko Tomioka. The play, roughly based on the story of the classic Kabuki play “Modoribashi” by Kawatake Mokuami, ran for only five days but became legendary at La MaMa. Ellen Stewart, Artistic Director of La MaMa, has long sought a return engagement to share this formative work with a larger audience. Her dream will now be fulfilled October 23 to November 2, 2008 thanks to the support of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan.

Prominent Japanese actress Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Japanese puppet master Jun Tanaka will return in their original roles. Mieko Yuki takes over the part that was originally played by Nobuko Miyamoto.

The play adopts the characters of the first act of “Modoribashi” by Kawatake Mokuami, a classical Kabuki drama that was, itself, based on a 1,000 year old myth. In it, a samurai offers to escort a beautiful woman across the Modori bridge of Kyoto, only to discover she is a dangerous demon. He pursues her into the air, fights with her, and ultimately cuts off her arm. In other variations of the myth, this leads to a variety of revenge stories. “The Doll Sisters” updates the myth using two actors, two puppeteers with doll puppets, and a man cloaked in black who would traditionally be an onstage facilitator, but becomes an actual character in this play.

In “The Doll Sisters,” two sisters are paralleled by a doll character, who are revealed finally to be the two natures of the single woman. The younger, more passionate sister is obsessed with finding a man to love her; her older, more reserved sister is obsessed with the man who abandoned her. On the modern psychological level, the play explores opposing qualities, both innate and acquired, of being female. It has strongly feminist tones.

Nobuko Miyamoto in The Doll Sisters by Taoko Tomioka.
The Doll Sisters by Taoko Tomioka, directed by Setsu Asakura in American premiere at La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 1978. Foreground: Nobuko Miyamoto. Photo courtesy of Setsu Asakura.

“The Doll Sisters” is part of the La MaMa Puppet Series Festival Part 2, which features multicultural works from Hawaii, Colombia and Japan. All the productions are brimming with international art forms. The series also contains “Ko’olau” by Tom Lee, a puppet epic based on a now-legendary story of Hawai’i in the 1890s (September 18 to October 5) and “Room to Panic” by LOCO 7, conceived and created by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber with music composed by Elizabeth Swados, a puppet/physical theater work dramatizing the struggles of the immigrant’s mind on the path toward assimilation (October 3 to 19). Patrons pre-purchasing two shows in the festival will be entitled to $3 off each ticket; patrons pre-purchasing all three shows will receive $5 off each ticket. The discounts are available at the box office and through La MaMa’s website, www.lamama.org.

Setsu Asakura, leading theatrical designer from Japan.
Setsu Asakura. Photo courtesy of La MaMa E.T.C.

Playwright Taeko Tomioka is a Japanese poet, novelist and fiction writer. She was well-established as a poet (for works including “Returning the Gift,” 1957) when she turned to fiction writing in 1971, and is now best known to general readers for her fiction (including “Family in Hell,” 1974), which is unmistakably autobiographical, and later works like “The Undulating Land,” 1983, in which potentials of women’s sexuality are candidly explored.

Renowned puppet master Jun Tanaka will reprise his role in the 1978 production. He has been designated a Living Treasure of the City of Tokyo. At the time of the first La MaMa production, he was Mogosaburo Yuki, the eleventh head of Yuki Ningyo Za (Yuki Puppet Theater) of Tokyo, a position now occupied by his brother. That marionette troupe was founded during the Edo period and was one of the first troupes to move from Buddhist parables to playing shamisen and singing at the same time for Joruri and Kabuki. Out of the five historical troupes founded three and a half centuries ago, it is the only one that continues in its original role as a theater. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government designated the Youkiza as an important cultural asset in 1956. Today it continues to perform Buddhist parables, but also performs new works, picture works and tours internationally. Its repertory includes an award-winning marionette performance of “Macbeth.” Tanaka led the company from 1972 to 1990, when he left it to pursue other artistic interests. For more info on the troupe, see: http://www.youkiza.jp/english/index.html. There is a peek at a contemporary Jun Tanaka performance on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LuMqKVmuo0&feature=related.

Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Older Sister) returns in the role she created 30 years ago. She is the younger sister of the noted novelist Junnosuke Yoshiyuki and an esteemed actress in Japan, appearing in numerous stage productions, TV and film. Her filmography lists 71 film productions between the 1950s and now, including “Empire Of Passion” by Nagisa Oshima. Mieko Yuki (Younger Sister) studied acting at Stella Adler Acting School in New York and has appeared in stage, TV and film productions in Japan. She is also an accomplished sculptor who creates papier mache dolls and pottery. She will have an exhibition of her works at Ippodo gallery in Chelsea (NYC) opening October 3.

This production of “The Doll Sisters” (Ningyo Shimai) is presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and Atelier Askura, supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan in the fiscal 2008, with additional support provided by Asian Cultural Council.

Shows will be October 23 to November 2, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan. For tickets call the Box office at (212) 475-7710 or visit www.lamama.org. Ticket prices are $25, $20 for seniors.