THEATER REVIEW: All Is MU

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The cast of "MU."

The cast of “MU.”

By STEPHEN SANO

Always at the forefront of artistic voices in Asian America and the world of emotive, innovative, and communicative performance, Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu, along with a stellar cast of dancers and musicians, presented the premiere of their latest opus, “MU,” on Friday, 27 September at Kanbar Hall of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, followed by performances at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert in October.

Debra Beaver Bauer’s costumes transformed performers into undersea creatures.

Debra Beaver Bauer’s costumes transformed performers into undersea creatures.

A rich tapestry of sound and sight, “MU” weaves together the story of a young, lonely, but captivatingly hip San Franciscan and the journey he experiences while endeavoring to save a mermaid and her underwater realm.

Providing the scaffold on which the piece is built, Aoki narrates the tale in her wonderfully inimitable style. Not only does she guide the audience through the arc of the story, but so effectively does she draw in the audience with her acute sense of timing and drama that she is even able to control how and when the assembled spectators breathe (or don’t) — storytelling at its finest!

The score, composed by jazz bassist Izu, is colorful and dynamic, and brings together a diversity of timbre and style in a truly collaborative fusion; the musicians don’t just “make room for each other” but are integrated in a symbiotic milieu that allows each instrument to be a focal point as well as a member of a well-oiled ensemble.

Japanese taiko combines with Western drum set, Japanese sho and shakuhachi intertwine with Western saxophone; the combinations are complementary and compelling. Special kudos to drummer Akira Tana for his humorous bit parts on stage as well as his uncanny ability to lay down a rock-solid pocket to which the rest of the ensemble can groove.

Kimi Okada’s choreography displays a pleasing blend of intricacy and simplicity, each characteristic used as a tool to define character and circumstance. Her creative work is brought to life by a strong corps of dancers led by Kai Kāne (KK) Aoki Izu, Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu’s 20-year-old son. Currently a sophomore at Stanford University, KK plays the hero of the piece — and heroic he is, in both his physical and emotional presence. With impressive elevation when called for, contrasted with a groundedness whereby he seemed to melt into the stage (or more aptly, the ocean bottom), the range of movement and form was a pleasure to behold.

His mermaid heroine, danced by Marina Fukushima, was alternately regal or innocent as the story required. When the two were partnered, even orthodox movement was theatrically absorbing.

Debra Beaver Bauer’s costumes were enchanting; colorful and humorous, with a sense of motion enhanced by creative fabrications that appeared appropriately “underwater.” Particularly effective were the sea horses, evoking delighted feedback from the audience members following the performance.

Though “MU” is built on concepts that could be overly cerebral if not cleverly handled, the foci of themes, married to a smartly-composed trajectory of narrative and music, are clear, easy to assimilate, and presented in a manner that is never heavy-handed.

Aoki and Izu have created a work that is engaging, and at times even provocative. And, this is a work that deserves longevity and impact far beyond its initial successful opening run and tour.

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Stephen M. Sano is a professor of music at Stanford University and the Harold C. Schmidt Director of Choral Studies. He teaches coursework in North American taiko and serves as co-faculty advisor for Stanford Taiko. For more information on “MU,” visit www.aokizu.com/.

Brenda Wong Aoki and her jellyfish friends.

Brenda Wong Aoki and her jellyfish friends.

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