At one point in “Yama,” two actors become foxes just by pulling their conical straw hats down over their faces to give them pointy snouts. It’s an idea the play’s director, Andrew Wakatsuki-Robinson, got from headgear he saw at the ancient Yama-dera Temple in northern Honshu’s Yamagata Prefecture — a region whose folk tales form the basis of this work.
“At first I just wanted one hat for a scene involving a monk,” he said. “Then I used them for the foxes, and later one became a basket.”
Creative use of props is characteristic of the 29-year-old New Zealand native who has been performing and directing in Japan since 2006, and who explained how, in this staging, cast members change costumes or use simple props like those hats to play multiple roles.
“Yama” is the third production by Doubtful Sound, a company he and his wife, Shinako, founded last year “to do theater that had a connection to the people and places around us,” as the director put it.
This aim led them to “Shonai no Minwa” (“Folktales of Shonai”), a 1970s collection of Yamagata stories compiled by the poet Hiroshi Hatakeyama, from which they selected elements that they worked on with Jeff Gedert — a U.S. translator who was in their first play, “Phaedra’s Love.”
The upshot, in “Yama,” is a fascinating mix of familiar Japanese tales of animals changing into humans and back again, siblings in competition and difficult mothers-in-law.
One, for instance, is a variation on the story of a man who catches a fish and kindly decides to throw it back. Then soon after, a woman arrives at his house and asks to marry him. They live happily until one day he discovers, through a strange turn of events involving fish eggs, that she is the fish he spared.
The stories in the play mostly date from ones written — or recorded from oral sources — in the 16th and 17th centuries.
If there’s a common theme, it’s that — reflecting ancient beliefs and superstitions — none offers the clear lessons and convenient closures typical of so many European folk and fairy tales. Consequently, characters often vanish or die just as events seem to be gaining momentum, while there’s rarely any clear sense of good and evil.
In line with Tokyo-based Doubtful Sound’s aim to make its work accessible to all, “Yama” is in both English and Japanese, with English and Japanese subtitles as necessary. Similarly in keeping with its roots, the play’s premiere was in the Zen garden of 750-year-old Gyokusen-ji Temple in the Yamagata town of Tsuruoka.
“It was very calm and quiet,” the director observed. “The audience could wander from watching the play to enjoying the beautiful surroundings. We all felt like a part of that landscape — the audience, the performers and the monks in the temple.”
Meanwhile, Shinako Wakatsuki-Robinson noted that “Yama” has inspired local people to look at their own history in new ways. “I gave a flier to a woman who grew up in Shonai and she was amazed because she didn’t know any of the stories,” she said. “Another woman from nearby Sakata thanked us for doing this because she said it made her see the region from a different perspective. She saw a value in its folklore that she hadn’t appreciated before.”
“Yama” runs Oct. 8-12 at Tiny Alice in Shinjuku, Tokyo. For details, visit doubtfulsound.asia.