Monday, February 22, 2016

The Story of Crow Boy - In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre

Crow Boy, now on stage at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT), is a fascinating depiction of a inspiring, talented artist and a feast for the eyes.

Crow Boy, conceived and created by Steven Epp, Masanari Kawahara, Sandy Spieler, and Momoko Tanno, is the story of Japanese artist Taro Yashima, a Caldecott Award-winning artist. Although early scenes of Taro's childhood are clever and endearing, as he ages, his story soon becomes more complex and at times, difficult to watch. He and his wife spoke up against war and the increasing militarization of Japan and were imprisoned under truly deplorable circumstances. In 1939, he and his wife traveled to New York, leaving their young son behind in the care of family, where he became a successful artist and children's book author, eventually reuniting with their son.

Rehearsal photo by Bruce Silcox
The show begins as Taro (Masanari Kawahara) comes on stage, bows deeply towards the audience and says "今晩輪、私の名前わ八島太郎です." Luckily, Steve Ackerman is soon beckoned on stage and starts to translate. The show continues in both Japanese and English. For those of us who understand both, it was very enjoyable, and the dual languages worked equally well for those who don't speak Japanese.

The beauty of Crow Boy is in its intriguing subject and its gorgeous, ingenious scenic design. The story plays out through the use of puppets, shadow play, music and minimalist set. The stage is mostly bare, apart from a simple long table that serves as a drawing table, a representation of the Pacific Ocean, a puppet theater, and even a prison cell. The stage is lined with full shoji panels along the back and sides. The shoji allow for marvelous shadow play, as well as creating the link that runs through the piece to paper and books. The shoji are used as a space to project simple line drawings, representations of Taro's art, and photographs establishing setting. The set is amazingly versatile and beautifully used.

Rehearsal photo by Bruce Silcox
Crow Boy is filled with unforgettable vignettes: endearing childhood moments such as Taro's father tucking him into bed in a book; romantic interludes as Taro meets his wife Mitsu while painting; times of anguish as Mitsu sings of worry about her child (as Mitsu, Momoko Tanno has an utterly gorgeous voice), and moments of pure wonder (such as the very end puppet appearance—no spoilers given!). And toward the end, Taro and Steve tell us the story of Crow Boy (one of Taro's children's books), complete with an ingenious, oversized pop-up book. While they are telling the story, Momoko is sitting on the side of the stage playing a Japanese shamisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed lute and singing. Again, her voice is just exquisite.

At ninety minutes with no intermission, the story still moves along in a slow, contemplative fashion. Some scenes go on to almost agonizing lengths, such as the prison and torture scenes. Although, the website states that the show is appropriate for ages 11 and up, I'd hesitate at bringing a child—I found the torture scenes hard to endure. Also, the show uses cast members beating on pans, bottles, drums and rainsticks to underscore the action. At times, the instruments were mercilessly loud—successfully creating tension and fear, but nonetheless a bit painful to hear.

Rehearsal photo by Bruce Silcox

In addition to the terrific additional material (and bibliography) about Taro Yashima in the program, HOBT has a wonderful lobby display showing Taro's work, copies of his award-winning children's books, and even Sandy Spieler's own signed copy of Taro's autobiography. After seeing this imaginative, engaging show, I definitely wanted to find out more about this amazing artist. And anytime I leave a show wanting to find out more about the subject and wanting to return soon to the theater, I consider that a success.

(co-written by KRL and Carly)