For Lawrence's Andrew Tsubaki, there's Noh place like home.

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For Lawrence's Andrew Tsubaki, there's Noh place like home.

Just as American theater styles have morphed and mutated over the years (imagine a 75-year timeline from vaudeville to performance art), so has Japanese theater. But the Japanese make Americans appear positively fickle: The last time they touched the performance style known as Noh Theatre was about 600 years ago.

Noh Theatre is a specialty of Andrew Tsubaki, who taught theater history and film at the University of Kansas for 31 years. "I came to Lawrence in 1968, around the time the student union was bombed," he says, recalling the tumultuous antiwar protests engulfing the campus upon his arrival. But that up-the-establishment volatility also translated into unbridled enthusiasm for culture. "Young people don't sit down and read literature anymore," he says of the shift in priorities during his tenure. "And there used to be more reaction to Japanese films of the '50s and '60s."

Despite the diminishing returns, however, he stuck it out for three decades and, though retired, is still a teacher at heart. On Sunday, Tsubaki gives a lecture about Noh Theatre traditions at the Spencer Museum of Art. The event celebrates a recent gift to the city of Lawrence: three Noh masks made by artist Koichi Takatsu, who plies his trade -- utusushi, the art of making reproductions of historic theater masks -- in Lawrence's sister city of Hiratsuka, Japan. Hiratsuka presented the masks when a Lawrence contingent visited to mark the sister-cityhood's tenth anniversary. Mayor Jim Henry decided to put them in the Spencer Museum's collection of Asian art rather than on some shelf in his office.

Tsubaki says Noh Theatre has remained virtually unchanged since the 14th century. The style was developed by a father-and-son actor team, Kan'ami and Zeami, who used four basic masks to represent man, woman, old man and demon. "Before Noh, theater in Japan was more street art, similar to Greek theater before comedy and tragedy," Tsubaki says. "Noh became very popular with the samurai warrior class because it dealt with tragic stories of death; they saw themselves."

Only during the 260-year rule of the Tokugawa family did Noh's momentum come to a halt. "There were no new stories written at that time," he says. But it picked up again, and now there is a set number of Noh plays -- 240 to be exact. They are mostly dark, Tsubaki says, "but comedies, called Kyogen, are usually sandwiched between two Nohs." At least four Noh theaters are active in Tokyo today. And, Tsubaki says, "there is a new trend, which is adding women actors to what has traditionally been only men -- thus the need for the woman mask."

To complement the lecture, Tsubaki plans to use Takatsu's masks to explain Noh styles -- but Tsubaki insists he cannot put them on. "The masks need to be worn with costumes and wigs. On me, in my black kimono, they don't look right. I don't have the liberty to wear them."

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