Kwaidan, a collection of “stories and studies of strange things” is a journey through Ghostly Japan being presented by the appropriately named Spooky Action Theater. With text described as poetic, and dream-like, the stories are hauntingly beautiful, eerie, and some even downright, well, spooky.
Staged throughout the cavernous Universalist National Memorial Church, Kwaidan occupies the various nooks, crannies and stairwells. Unlike being immersed in a complex with multiple scenes going on simultaneously in multi-sensory overload, this production keeps the audience together and moves them throughout the scenes. Stoic “guides” usher the audience into each storied experience with soft, gentle gestures directing where to sit, stand, and congregate. During one passage where we seem divided to share the space, the split was so subtle there was no inkling of missing what was happening in the next room before we were reunited again.
The experience begins with the audience gathered in the foyer where Steve Krzyzanowdki functions as ticket taker, judiciously stamping each program like a passport. The action starts when David Gaines as the playwright Lafcadio Hearn descends the staircase and is selected to bare witness to the events that unfold. His charge is “tell the story,” and he takes his job seriously. A seasoned performer, Gaines scribbles hurriedly in his ever-present notebook like a journalist eager to capture the tiniest detail and turn in copy by deadline. Gaines never breaks character and is thus always on. With the look of a harried suited traveler, in costuming reflecting an earlier period, well-used suitcase in hand, Gaines looks about anxiously with halting movements as if he’s just missed the last steamboat home. His charismatic appeal elevates the entire production to worthiness. Without his portrayal, furrowed brow and engaging presence in quiet testimonial, the experience would feel more contrived and amateurish.
Once the no-nonsense ticket agent has cleared all of the “passengers,” ominous wailings can be heard in the background while the “guides” spring to action with the pronouncement that the portal is ready. With Gaines and playwright Hearn earnestly beckoning us to join him through the open door, the audience becomes part of the assignment, and our communal journey begins.
The stories have humanistic dramatic elements with universal appeal despite the ghostly apparitions that accompany them. In an early piece, a woman tells the grief-stricken tale of waiting for her beloved who never returns. All she can do is caress the beautiful cross-stitched robe that she made for him after watching him leave. The woman fondles the garment tenderly beseeching audience members to put it on hoping to bring him back when his profile appears tantalizingly in silhouette with each wearing. The silhouette disappears as soon as she reaches out to grasp it leaving her desolate with despair only to start all over again. The touching tale relays the emotional cruelty of constantly seeking the gratification of a far-gone loving embrace.
Jacob Yeh commands attention wielding a swashbuckling sword as a strong though vulnerable Samurai. Also appealing is Tuyet Thi Pham, serious and alluring, even when not uttering a word.
In another, a young scribe is painted with a substance to make him invisible to a fiendishly angry entity, but his ears apparently lacked coverage and were thus yanked off. Once ushered to another room, we witness Pham’s plea for someone to hold her swaddled baby for just a moment. When pressured by the insistent women, Yeh as a military officer reluctantly agrees only to get more than what he or anyone could imagine. In an open spaced room, lovely performers hover in a simple frame representing a house and come out tantalizingly to embrace an unwitting soldier. But is the maiden living or a ghost? He protests that she’s as alive as anything he could ever wish for, but when the bluish lighting casts an unearthly pall on her, the soldier learns the truth the hard way.
Director Izumi Ashizawa, adapting the stories along with Spooky Action artistic director, Richard Henrich, tenderly brings out the heart and soul of all of tales while keeping a sense of flow for the audience. Although the free-standing stories don’t build on each other for any kind of an overarching message, the final tale culminates in the large sanctuary with audience members seated in the pulpit area. All of the characters are busy roaming, moaning, helping to render the ultimate spirit who fleetingly appears above the crowd high in the choir loft, giving a sense of finality. The messages come through effectively, although the stale air quality could become physically overpowering in sweltering conditions and theatrical haze. Bring water.
Closes June 22, 2014
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St NW Washington
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Lighting by Brian S. Allard and sound design by Neil McFadden are particularly important in relaying a sense of otherworldliness. The multi-talented Ashizawa also designed the costumes bringing an elegant sophistication with beautifully brocaded kimonos and sheer fluttering attire for the ladies, full-covering black for apparitions, and ghostly masks throughout.
Being part of the roving audience being transported together to an unworldly place was an intriguing experience. The portrayals were engaging, ghostly, sometimes ghastly, always interesting despite the environment being physically uncomfortable at times, with several obscured sight-lines.
Sometimes productions pronounce their importance, significance and relevance from the onset while others take a while to sneak into your being. Kwaidan is the latter. As Ashizawa noted in the press release, the fact that “ … an all Asian-American cast is performing Japanese ghost stories, written by a GreeK Irish American immigrant (later naturalized as Japanese) author, directed by a native Japanese director, in an American Neo-Gothic church…” adds a special layer of appreciation and even awe that a small theater could mount this and pull it off. Producing Kwaidan is not a simple undertaking. Only 30 audience members can take part of the journey at a time. Here’s hoping that every seat is booked for transport to Ghostly Japan throughout the run.
Kwaidan . Collection of tales written by Lafcadio Hearn . Adapted by Izumi Ashizawa and Richard Henrick . Directed by Izumi Ashizawa . Featuring Phillip Chang, David Gaines, Jennifer Knight, Justin Le, Momo Nakamura, Michael Panganiban,Tuyet Thi Pham and Jacob Yeh . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.