Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Seen/By Everyone
Theatre of Yugen
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sweat, Oslo and Jeanie's review of Hello, Dolly!

Annika Bergman and Adrian Deane
Photo by Shannon Davis
Theatre of Yugen is beginning its 40th season with Seen/By Everyone. The word yugen refers to a Japanese aesthetic that is translated in multiple ways, but tends to refer to a sense of the ineffably profound in art and nature. Theatre of Yugen defines its mission as creating "intercultural performance experiences" rooted in this aesthetic. Much of their work incorporates elements of noh, the Japanese form of musical drama that dates from the 14th century: masks, an open stage, stylized movements and gestures, and minimal props, especially fans, which stand in for a variety of objects.

Seen/By Everyone (developed in conjunction with Five on a Match) is a performance piece that focuses on how social media has affected the way we grieve. When a person dies today, their Facebook profile does not expire with them, and friends and family left behind sometimes look to social media histories to recall the times they spent with loved ones, and even to maintain a one-way conversation with the deceased by continuing to post comments to social media to and about them. This makes Seen/By Everyone a fine match with Japanese aesthetics, since yugen also includes aspects of another Japanese term of art, wabi-sabi, which refers to things impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect. Like, for instance, life.

Seen/By Everyone is performed by a troupe of seven. Maggie (Adrian Deane) is the dead friend, clothed in white (a symbol of mourning and rebirth in eastern Asian cultures). Though she walks among them, her friends can't see her. But they talk about—and to—her, using words taken from actual social media posts. "I'm not sure how things work up there," one says, clearly referencing heaven, and each friend states a memory about Maggie, then places a small memento (e.g., a lipstick, a paper crown) in front of a picture of her and lights an incense stick.

There is no real narrative here, simply a collection of lines and movement and gesture—about Maggie, but also about the grief process itself. A noh performance always includes music, and so it is here. But in this piece, the music takes the form of karaoke songs, hinting that the deceased and her friends enjoyed going to karaoke bars. The friends sing and move and drink. A bartender (Enormvs Munoz) creates transitional elements and serves the drinks, which are represented sometimes by cups and sometimes by fans.

"Grief is awful, but it's not fatal," the characters say, and that incompleteness—being in sadness, yet seeing no way through it—permeates Seen/By Everyone. If you are looking for answers to the big questions of life and death, you won't find them here. All you will find are more questions. You will be unsettled and unsatisfied, yet if you open yourself up to the underlying emotions being presented in such a mannered and precise form, you may find the experience of Seen/By Everyone compelling. And perhaps a little confusing.

"When someone dies," as several of the characters say toward the end of the piece, "you don't get over your grief by forgetting—you get over your grief by remembering." And so it is with Seen/By Everyone: it shows us—in its yugen way—that when memory is all we have of a person, we embrace them still by keeping them in mind.

Seen/By Everyone, through October 21, 2018, at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:00pm, with Sunday matinees at 4:00pm. Tickets are $15-$45, and are available at