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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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University Theatre's Wondrous Tales of Old Japan II offers a glimpse into the Japanese kabuki tradition
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The singing and dancing that accompanies the gang's adventure showcases the lighthearted nature of Furumoto's kabuki.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

University Theatre's annual Theatre for Youth production, Wondrous Tales of Old Japan II (through April 13 at UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre), illustrates the emotional power of storytelling by weaving together colorful tales old-world Japan.

Tales of a young hero born from a peach, a crane seeking to express gratitude and a tongue-slashed sparrow form a brilliant collage in this work by David Furumoto. University Theatre's take on these three vibrant narratives offers young audiences an enjoyable introduction to kabuki-style performance. In a brief overview of this Japanese tradition prior to the opening-night show, the cast noted kabuki's dance-like movements and the significance of the actors' elaborate makeup.

Slow, heavy drumming threw the play into action and built suspense for the plots to follow. The production began with the story of Momotaro, a boy brought to life from a giant peach. An old woman, desperate to have a child with her husband, finds the immense peach and presents it as a gift to her spouse. Much to their delight, the fruit transforms into a young boy before their very eyes.

Ogres plague the family's village and one day, Momotaro sets out to battle them. On his quest, he runs into an assortment of animals eager to lend a helping hand. The singing and dancing that accompanies the gang's adventure showcases the lighthearted nature of Furumoto's kabuki. The animals' playful name-calling enhances the performance's childlike feel and gives the piece a sense of humor.

When the group comes face-to-face with an ogre, the fight scene shimmers thanks to Jim Greco's costume design. The handmade headdresses of the animals, Momotaro's expressive makeup and the ogre's bright contrast of vivid suiting and glitter-coated features create a lively aesthetic.

The set remains fairly consistent between tales. A few props get swapped and Jim Vogel's skillfully illustrated backdrops alternate. As the performance shifted to the story of a crane eager to repay the elderly couple that once nursed her, a delicate bird emerged to the beat of a whimsical song. Seamlessly shift between warm and bright lighting to accommodate the pace and tone of action, Robert Stepek did a fine job of aligning drama with nuanced illumination.

The introduction of an old Japanese fairy tale, the story of a tongue-cut sparrow, features traditional Japanese costuming full of rich textures and bold patterns. This dress accentuates the enchanting plot of a kind old man who keeps a tiny sparrow as a pet, much to the chagrin of his cruel wife. After becoming irritated at the sparrow one day for eating her laundry starch, the wife cuts the sparrow's tongue in half.

A memorable moment of the performance is the sparrow and old man's joyful rendition of the Sparrow's School Song, a traditional Japanese folk tune. This last story left the greatest impression upon me as Amy Bahr's vocal harmonies and Chue Xiong's charming demeanor created palpable charisma.

Although I found certain actors' faux-Japanese accents to be quite off-putting and distracting at times, the performance was visually pleasing and entertaining overall. David Furumoto's production gives both adults and children an engaging peek into Japanese folklore and the kabuki tradition.

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