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PCC stages US premiere of Usagi Yojimbo play

Popular comic book character makes leap from page to stage with U.S. premiere of Usagi Yojimbo at PCC Sylvania


TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Perfomers rehearse a scene from PCC Sylvanias production of 'Usagi Yojimbo,' based on the Dark Horse comic series.What do you get when you mix feudal Japanese culture, puppets and rabbits? Why, Portland Community College’s new play, of course.

The community college’s theater arts program is gearing up for its latest production, “Usagi Yojimbo,” which opens this Friday for a six-day run at the Performing Arts Center.

But don't expect Rogers and Hammerstein. The 90-minute play takes place in a 16th-century Japan populated by anthropomorphic bunnies, raccoons, bears and foxes.

It’s a fantastical world that director Patrick Tangredi brought to life through masks, puppets and plenty of swordplay.

Based off the popular Dark Horse Comics comic book series of the same name, the show tells the origin story of Usagi, a young rabbit, who trains to become a great samurai but is forced to give up his peaceful ways when war engulfs his land.

It’s the production's North American premiere after opening last year at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

Stan Sakai, the comic book's creator and author, will be signing books and giving a special Q&A before Friday's premiere, according to Dark Horse Comics.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Former Tigard High student Kyle Menzies plays the Brown Bunny in the PCC Sylvania production of 'Usagi Yojimbo.'

From page to stage

All the actors play different forest animals. Wearing a mask or controlling puppets makes acting more difficult, said Tigard's Marcos Tunes — he plays Lord Mifune in the production, but it’s also more freeing in a way.

“We have to act all with our voices and bodies so much more,” said Tunes, 29. “We can’t rely on our faces to convey emotion.

Created by Sakai in the 1980s, “Usagi Yojimbo” has proven extremely popular, with new adventures still being published. The book has won three Eisner Awards — the highest honor in comic books — and the character has appeared in video games and became a recurring character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series.

“I used to watch 'Usagi Yojimbo' on TV as a kid,” Tunes said. “When I heard they were doing the play, I was unsure about it at first. Were they just going to be doing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on stage? But the more that I saw it come together, the more excited I got for it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Check it out

What: Usagi Yojimbo

Where: PCC Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center, 12000 S.W. 49th Ave., in Portland

Performances:

• Friday, Nov. 6 , 7 p.m. • Saturday, Nov. 7, 2 p.m.

• Thursday, Nov. 12, 11 a.m.

• Friday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m.

• Saturday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m.

• Sunday, Nov. 15, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $10 general admission. $8 veterans, seniors, and PCC staff and students.

Tickets are available at the box office, the campus bookstore or online.

Friday premiere

Rehearsals for the show began in October, but Danielle Bash, who helped design the masks and puppets used in the show, has been hard at work preparing for the premiere for months.

“I started working over the summer,” said Bash, 31, of Tigard. “I worked on the masks for days and days, and the armor, too.”

Bash was in charge of designing one of the show’s largest puppets, a 10-foot-tall bear.

It takes three people to operate the bear, using the movement of the bear’s arms to convey most of its emotion, said Eve Bradford, one of the puppeteers.

That makes it a challenge for the actors, she said, but it’s worth it.

Designing such a large character took a lot of work, Bash said.

“Going at it, you don’t have a feel whether this person is a good person, a bad person, or (a jerk). It turns out the bear is a terrible human being. I was snarling as I was making the mask.” This is Tunes’ fifth show with PCC Sylvania. He said he plans to make it his career.

“I’m addicted,” he said. “Acting is escapism. You get to live somebody else’s life for a little while. You get to think differently than you normally would. View the world from somebody else’s shoes.”

Tunes said he’s never acted in a play that has used so many masks and puppets, but said that’s part of bringing the play’s interesting characters to life.

Usagi Yojimbo premieres at PCC Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center, 12000 S.W. 49th Ave., in Portland, this Friday.

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