Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda exhumes a ghost from his family tree in “Ballad of Yachiyo,” a somber drama whose elemental story doesn’t sustain its two-hour-plus length. Gotanda’s frequent collaborator Sharon Ott and a crackerjack design team contribute fine work, but the play’s symbolic and naturalistic elements don’t always complement each other. It’s not as vividly realized as Gotanda’s contemporary plays.
Yachiyo Matsumoto (Sala Iwamatsu), whose story is based on the life of one of Gotanda’s aunts, is a 16-year-old girl in 1919 Hawaii whose struggling field-worker parents have high hopes for her. She’s sent to learn the refinements of the tea ceremony in the home of a wealthy friend, Okusan (Emily Kuroda), and a doomed love triangle quickly develops as Yachiyo is inexorably drawn to Okusan’s husband, Hiro (Francois Chau), a bitter, disappointed pottery artisan. There’s a dreamy questing in both that is at first answered in each other, but as Hiro’s pottery approaches perfection, his need for Yachiyo diminishes.
The tale has the simplicity of classical Japanese theater (and indeed ends in traditionally tragic fashion), and might be better served with a more minimalist text. Devices Gotanda uses to flesh out the story too often prove diluting: Characters address the audience to spell out what should be — or has already been — illustrated or intimated; the symbolism of the pottery-making is evocative, but we’re given rather too much time to ponder it during frequent monologues that explain its every detail (meanwhile, the symbolism of Yachiyo’s growing taste for bitter tea is heavy-handed). The use of Okusan’s hand-manipulated dolls to echo the story’s strains of disappointed love is more precious than provocative.
The performances of the three leads are of a piece: competent but lacking in the richness that might help us overlook the story’s too studied unfolding. Sab Shimono and particularly Dian Kobayashi, in the smaller roles of Yachiyo’s parents, are more effective.
Loy Arcenas’ earth-toned set suits the play’s mood to perfection, and director Ott puts Peter Maradudin’s lighting to good use in the play’s more stylized moments, with its water imagery being particularly well realized.
Gotanda’s melding of elements of classic theater with more contemporary styles signals the clash of traditional Japanese culture with the growing self-determination of men and women who have one foot in the modern world. In “Ballad of Yachiyo,” style overwhelms the slender substance, and the result isn’t compelling theater.