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    The Doll Sisters

    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.

    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. The artists awarded are distinguished for their achievements, for the international influence of their art, and for having enriched the world community. The Japan Art Association assigns the prize annually for an artist's life work in each of five categories: painting, sculpture, architecture, music and film/theatre. The prize in film/theater was awarded in 2007 to La MaMa's Ellen Stewart.

    "The Doll Sisters" began in 1976 as a collaboration between Taeko Tomioka, a noted poet, and Setsu Asakura, who was already a leading stage designer. It featured puppeteer Jun Tanaka, who was then head of Yuki Ningyo Za (Yuki Puppet Theater) of Tokyo and a conservator of a tradition that dates back to the Edo period. Their play premiered at Tokyo's Theatre Jean-Jean and won high critical praise. It used both puppets and actors, combining ancient styles with modern ones. Traditional conventions of the play were drawn from the bunraku and even earlier forms of doll-drama.

    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. In the Kabuki play, the female demon's transformation into a terrible devil — using face, voice and posture — offers a rare opportunity for an actor specializing in the weird. "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.

    Japanese theater is replete with such "classic" themes as women seduced and abandoned, or women steadfast and faithful. Tomioka took women's themes a step further, exploring the layers of meaning which exist between humans and puppets, a theme seen first in her script for Shinoda's well-known film "Double Suicide." In doing so, she incorporated several qualities of classical Japanese dramaturgy:

    The first is "jonen," often translated as "sentiment," but containing more complex nuances. It refers to the fervent fidelity shown, usually by women, in the classic drama. The second quality is "on-nen." Again, no exact translation is possible, but it refers to the pain and horror, hatred and loathing, which occur within a person who is deserted, abandoned, and ruined.

    In "The Doll Sisters," these two qualities are embodied within the heroines of the play — two sisters 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.

    In 1978, the play opened at the Dallas Theater and then toured to twelve US universities, culminating in five performances at La MaMa. The New York run was too brief to leave behind many reviews, but long enough to etch a significant place in the memory of La MaMa. The artists of the play have maintained a close friendship with the theater, and puppet master Jun Tanaka participated in La MaMa's International Symposium for Directors in Umbria, Italy in 2005.

    This year's production of "The Doll Sisters," like its predecessor, will be performed entirely in the original Japanese. The production returns with most of its original company. Director is Setsu Asakura, who also designed the set and costumes. The Older Sister is played by Kazuko Yoshiyuki. The Young Sister is played by Mieko Yuki. The Man Marionetteer is Jun Tanaka. The "Man in Black" is played by Kikushiro Onoe. The Woman Marionetteer is Kikukata Onoe. Lighting design is by Ikuo Murobushi. Sound is by Shoji Harashima. Choreography is by Kikushiro Onoe. Production Managers are Jun Matsuno and Misa Hayashi. New York production coordinator is OneStage Inc.

    "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,

    Dates:  Oct. 23, 2008 - Nov. 2, 2008
    Schedule:  Th-Sat at 7:30, Sun at 2:30 and 7:30
    Venue:  La Mama Experimental Theater, 74A East 4th St.
    Price:  Tickets $25, seniors $20
    Tickets/info:  (212) 475-7710

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