Mayu Iwasaki explores her Japanese culture in Ventfort Hall’s one-woman play, ’Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age.’
Mayu Iwasaki explores her Japanese culture in Ventfort Hall’s one-woman play, 'Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age.' (Photos by Kevin Sprague / Courtesy of Ventfort Hall)

LENOX -- Mayu Iwasaki, an actress born and raised in Japan, has never met a Geisha but is living the life of a famous one on the Ventfort Hall stage.

"Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age" is a one-woman account of the life of Yuki ("Snow Fragrance") Kato from her meeting with George Denison Morgan, son of the first owners of Ventfort Hall, until her death at 82 as a lonely widow in Japan.

Iwasaki appears throughout the play in a kimono her aging grandmother gave her for the show. She had worn one only once before -- at her coming of age ceremony.

While growing up, Iwasaki saw beautiful kimono-clad Geishas, women of art, on a street in Kyoto, but she never knew much about them, she said, until she was cast in the play based on Kato's adventurous life as Morgan's wife.

"I knew about geishas who dressed up and entertained," Iwasaki, now 26, said in an interview. "I saw them walking down streets in Kyoto when I was in high school. I never talked to any of them. It was interesting for me to read about my Japanese culture."

Kato met Morgan in 1902, when he traveled through Japan and saw her perform. They married in Japan, and when his family reacted coldly, she settled with him in France. She would return to Japan more than 30 years later, in 1938, as Japan and America leaned toward World War II. She adopted a daughter there.

Yuki became famous in Japan, with a 1951 musical based on her life, but in the West she was almost completely forgotten.

Ventfort Hall's resident historian, the late Joan Olshansky, researched Kato's life and marriage, and in 2006 Natsuko Ohama, a founding member of Shakespeare & Company, wrote this play for Ventfort Hall.

Yuki's long and extraordinary life makes her the bearer of the traditions of both East and West. Her 82 years took her from cosmopolitan Japan through the international glamor of the Gilded Age and on into a period of massive global changes and technological advances.

"I didn't know about Yuki, but my mother knew about her," Iwasaki said. "I like Yuki. She is a very independent woman who is attractive in a way but more muscular, not like an ordinary Japanese woman. She knows what she wants."

The daughter of a successful architect of modern skyscrapers and a puppeteer, Iwasaki studied acting in a Catholic high school in Japan and continued her studies for several years in Australia before entering the New York downtown theater scene several years ago. She worked with an international company, appeared in a New York stage and film festival, and studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute and at Skidmore College.

Iwasaki is staying in a Ventfort gate house while "having much fun with this show. I love being here for the summer," she said.

She particularly enjoys chatting with members of the audience after each performance. They are interested in learning about Japanese culture and more about Yuki, she said.

Iwasaki hopes to stay in the United States to explore new opportunities for her career -- and acting in classic plays.

"I love Greek drama," she said.

If you go ...

What: Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age

When:Wednesday, Thursdays at 7; Fridays, Saturdays at 4; and Sundays at 10 a.m. until Sept. 1

Where: Ventfort Hall, 104 Walker St., Lenox

Admission: $25

Information: (413) 637-3206, gildedage.org

This article has been updated from a previous version to correct the actress' name, Mayu Iwasaki.