What comes around

In The Cycle Plays, Theatre of Yugen looks to uncover a spirit in every tone
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PREVIEW Until stumbling on The Wishing Bone Cycle some years back, I hadn't wondered why owls die with wings outspread or how a man wearing antlers on his head can be tricked into thinking that real moose are after him. Yet Howard Norman's eye-opening transcription-translations of Swampy Cree narrative poems are so arresting that I still find new questions in my life just to bring them to the stories. The tales invariably answer with bigger inquiries of their own. In the transformations they detail, animals — moose, lynx, frogs, bears — are adept shape-shifters, this being their key to survival, while humans change forms clumsily, afraid to be themselves.

When Theatre of Yugen presents The Cycle Plays in a daylong, one-time-only performance on 7/7/07, those present for the free event will be entranced by the resonant questing onstage. Our minds might even grow new antlers and roots at the same time. The Cycle Plays, connected to The Wishing Bone Cycle only in my head, was written by the hugely imaginative local playwright Erik Ehn, dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts and an artistic associate with Yugen.

The Cycle Plays' five plays and opening dance have been in collaborative development for more than two years. They are an offering on a large scale, channeling the smaller, focused gestures of cleansing and growing closer that make up the company's rich repertoire of movement. "Like many of Erik's ideas, we just couldn't bear to see a world without it," explained Lluis Valls, one of the three co–<\d>artistic directors who received the torch from founder Yuriko Doi in 2001.

A ritual dance play created with Doi, 10,000, opens the cycle. It features Doi, who is now in her 60s, alongside two of the company's founding members, Brenda Wong Aoki and Helen Morgenrath. Based around a pulsating triangulation of three older women, it is an adaptation of the traditional Okina opening form. The plays that follow, interspersed with performances by guest comedy artists, represent the five traditional categories of Noh plays: Deity, Warrior, Woman, Madness, and Demon. They include Winterland, in which two teenage girls venture to see the Sex Pistols at the title club in San Francisco, and Long Day's Journey into Night, a refiguring of Eugene O'Neill's intense masterpiece. The company describes its Long Day's Journey as "a ghost within a ghost within a variation of O'Neill's fourth act."

Theatre of Yugen thrives on discipline and openness. Founded in 1978, the devoted troupe combines classical Japanese forms such as Noh theater and Kyogen comedy with cross-genre soundscapes and a willingness to reach into the heart of stories. Penetrating the psychology at the root of human actions, actors play ghosts and demons who are the embodiment of destructive attachments. The resulting unrest of the haunted characters stems from their not knowing whether they or the illusions are meant to disappear.

Lead composers and musicians Allen Whitman and Suki O'Kane help manifest this sense of being on the edge of great loss. Joined by the Yugen Orchestra on common and obscure instruments, they make music that is by turns postmodern and incantatory and harmonizes well with co–<\d>artistic director Jubilith Moore's stunning performance in Winterland. Moore plays a leper, a beekeeper, and a milkman, all the ghosts of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), who appears to the overwhelmed girls as they try to reach the concert that turned out to be the Sex Pistols' final show. Who hasn't had a night like that in San Francisco?

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