The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

Rated 4.0 Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra, or CATS, stages one production annually, and it’s usually a contemporary play about Asians coming to America, such as The Joy Luck Club or Woman Warrior.

This year’s effort, Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, originates entirely outside the Western tradition. Written as a puppet drama in 1703, Love Suicides was hugely popular with audiences in Osaka, Japan. And it became a literary milestone; the final scene, as the lovers steal into the forest by night to take their lives, is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature.

But it’s a stretch for contemporary Californians. Our images of Tokugawa times typically come from pop fare like Shogun or Akira Kurosawa sword films (which the director modeled on American Westerns). The challenge for this production is to connect us with the real deal: an authentic play written three centuries ago, half a world away, in a culture hugely different from our own.

What’s it like? Romeo and Juliet is an obvious point of reference—especially the ending (two dead bodies, center stage).

But Shakespeare’s lovers come from rich families. The lovers in this play are ordinary, a prostitute and a low-rung merchant. And Juliet attempts to fake her death so she can join Romeo in exile. The tragedy is that their play goes awry. The tragedy in Love Suicides is that Ohatsu and Tokubei can’t elope. He’s ruined, financially and socially, and she’s indentured, almost a slave. They’re about to be separated forever, and that would be unbearable.

So, they resolve to die together. And for the play to succeed, they need to die beautifully, “a model of true love.”

That’s a tall order; onstage death scenes are very tricky. But CATS pulls it off, using a mix of experienced actors and novices. Credit director Amber Jo Manuel, who studied Japanese theater at the University of Hawaii, for grasping the goal and weaving in kabuki-derived inflections. David Minkoff’s gorgeous wooden set—with many natural colors and textures—is another plus. Veterans Marti Cate and A.M. Lai illuminate as narrators, young Daniel Douros and Holli Lichtenwalter-Hiraoka play the lovers, and Ernest Bustos swaggers as the dishonest villain.

It’s not rigorously authentic: It’s in English, with live music for taiko, flute and woodblocks, and there’s no shamisen. Catherine Ione’s costumes look good; she cleverly incorporated found objects.

The main thing is that the story works, however far we’re removed from the source. It’s a rare thing simply to see Love Suicides. For a community group like CATS to stage it successfully is a double accomplishment. —J.H.

Love Suicides at Sonezaki plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, as well as at 2 p.m. Saturday matinees on January 25 and February 1, $13-$15. Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad Street, Nevada City, (530) 273-6362. Through February 8.