Here We Come a Carol-ing

There's something especially provocative about the way Theatre of Yugen's Noh Christmas Carol merges Dickens' classic English novel with the conventions of ancient Japanese theater. Two powerful traditions — one a familiar story that has become ritualized, the other a synthesis of theatrical genres (noh and kabuki) based on ritual — work together here to create a hybrid third that delights by offering surprises in place of clichŽs and by using form itself as an object of reverence. It's a very intriguing premise, which I found exciting three years ago when it premiered. For the most part it has stood up well. But while the production (adapted by Cianna Stewart and directed and choreographed by Yuriko Doi) has retained its shape and integrity, it seems to have lost some of its freshness and vitality.

Visually, it is still gorgeous to look at. Thanks to set designer Jun Hirota with lighting by Ellen Brooks, the intimate Theatre of Yugen in Project Artaud has been transformed into a formal Japanese garden in winter. White streamers create a sky that reaches over the stage and audience in four symmetrical bands. Tree limbs covered with clumps of cotton snow serve as a border both to protect the tranquility of the inner space and to remind of the world outside. Paper lanterns light the path, and in the center is a well, which served as the hub of every ancient village.

To the rhythmic clap of traditional wooden blocks, Sukurooji Ebizo (Mikio Hirata) appears in a beautiful kimono (elegant costumes by Yuriko Doi). His face is painted like a mask, and the pair of fans with which he dances become a symbolic wall between him and his family, and him and his neighbors. When his nephew (Lluis Valls) greets him with “Merry Christmas,” his version of “Bah, humbug” is to growl that all merrymakers should be “boiled in [their] own miso soup.”

Such lines, judiciously placed and purposefully silly, give an audience that might otherwise be intimidated by the formality of the noh and kabuki styles (blended here for maximum effect) permission to laugh.

But while humor is an important aspect of Noh Christmas Carol, it is ritual, movement, and pageantry that drive it. The ghost of Marley, here called Mashima Jakubei (Kinji Hayashi), is the eeriest and most effective of the masked spirit presences. He rises out of the well, his face deathly white, his costume white with black accents. Around him is a chain made of huge cloth links, which weighs him down and attaches him to the underworld. As an oblivious Sukurooji plays with his money, Mashima labors to break through the psychic barriers and make contact.

Sukurooji's spiritual journeys into Christmases past, present, and future are elegant but all too predictable. While the adapters have shortened the story as much as possible, there's still the feeling that they are racing through overly familiar territory which they haven't found original ways of illuminating. Puppets (by Mikio Hirata, who also created the masks of the children in Christmas Past) serve as stand-ins for Tiny Tim et al., and the versatile cast of four — Valls doubles as Bob Cratchit/Kurando and Karen Lee takes the women's roles — does a valiant job of jumping from role to role. Lee is especially poignant as Sukurooji's disappointed fiancee.

The heart of this Christmas Carol is the relationship between Sukurooji and Mashima, an elegant bonding that propels the story — Marley's reaching out to offer Scrooge the opportunity to escape his fate is what sets it all in motion — and that is here given pride of place at the end. Sukurooji thanks Mashima for his “great gift,” thus freeing that troubled spirit. The effect of Mashima's shedding his chain is lovely, as is the funereal chant sung by the two friends. I have only one wish for Noh Christmas Carol — that they step up the pacing and trust the magic they have worked so hard to create.

I know, I know, the holidays are in full swing and there's too much to do. But skip the cards this year, let the cookies burn, and instead of taking Aunt Sophie shopping, get yourself (with or without Aunt Sophie) to the Fairmont to see the incomparable Barbara Cook, here only until Dec. 23.

A Broadway legend since the '60s when she starred in such classics as Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me, Cook has spent the last 20 years or so perfecting her nightclub act. The show she brings to the New Orleans Room is a wonderful mixture of songs that have become her personal standards (“He Was Too Good to Me,” “Losing My Mind”), great showtunes (“Surrey With the Fringe on Top”), and pop classics (“When Sunny Gets Blue”).

Accompanied by her longtime colleague, pianist Wally Harper (along with local bass player Mario Suracci), she sails into each number with enough enthusiasm to bring even a ho-hum, seen-it-all, Thursday-night crowd to its feet over and over. She doesn't do this by overwhelming, but by doling out good will and appreciation, as though we were the ones who were brilliant and deserved applause.

She also does it with talent: a warm, clear voice that still recalls Marion of The Music Man or Amalia of She Loves Me, combined with an uncanny ability to inhabit a song. She does it by surprising: A smashing medley from Porgy and Bess includes some unexpected choices and, not coincidentally, shows Harper off as more of a one-man orchestra than mere piano player. And finally, she does it by putting down the microphone for the encore and simply singing: a moment of breathtaking intimacy and generosity that will warm the holidays for me well past the new year.

Noh Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 30 at Project Artaud's Noh Space in S.F.; call 621-7978.

Barbara Cook performs through Dec. 23 at the Fairmont's New Orleans Room in S.F.; call 772-5259.

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