“Some birds can’t see beyond the tips of their bills!” That line got the audience giggling at three bullying ducklings with attitude – Flap, Waddle and Ducky. It nailed the essence of the newly-tuned fable of how one little crane and some fellow creatures show that with courage, patience, and the teaching of kindness, we can all change for the better.
It was a warm morning in Washington, but there is something wonderful about seeing a performance outside in the shadow of one of Washington’s lesser-known monuments. I had never been to the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II, tucked in as it is in a hidden park on the corner of New Jersey and Louisiana Avenues. It was moving to sit in its small arena with the bronze crane decorating a central pillar surrounded by its commemorative walls, and I could well understand that it inspired the creative team for this show to dramatize a story behind the incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry as well as the 30,000 Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II.
Luckily, the creators didn’t try to cover all the ins and outs of the massive and complex military and political history of the mid-twentieth century. Director Hope Villanueva and her team employed a few puppets, physical theatre performers, and a handful of props, which they shared so that the audience has abundant opportunity to get involved, and together they unfold the story with the simplest of means.
A couple of cranes fly across an ocean to find a new home when their pond becomes overcrowded. The cranes have a baby, and the three of them try to make the new world stream their home. But they are ostracized and treated with cruelty. It takes the outside threat of a marauding fox – beautifully realized as a giant puppet – that finally challenges them and brings them all together.
The show is at its best where the movement defines the animal characters and interactions. I loved how movement coach Tyler Herman had involved the cast of the duck squad grunts to invent a great sprawling improvisation of crawling through, up and over mountainous terrain.
Bryan Azucena as the central character endows his little crane with grace, fragility, and facial expressions full of quizzical innocence and unabashed hurt as he tries to befriend the ducks in his new neighborhood. Stephanie Tomiko, Ruthie Rado and Andrew Quilpa cut loose as the three ducklings and play off each other with suitably sassy, snobby, and otherwise snippily-quacking moments and duck-footed comical business. Matthew Strote and Rebecca Speas overcome the sometime-stilted dialogue of the noble crane parents when simply allowed to embody crane interactions and create the physicality of their garden and stream where they are trying to carve out a life of dignity and peace. Strote also has an amusing cameo as a boot camp officer breaking in a special duck brigade. Phillip Reid, as the narrator with the help of a turtle hand puppet, escapes what could be a somewhat plodding role with his superb focus and expressive handling of the helmet-sized character.
The Little Crane and The Long Journey
by Hope Villanueva and The Crane Fable Project
Directed by Hope Villanueva
Choreography by Tyler Herman
Details and tickets
You don’t have to be a Washington news show junkie to see the parallels to the fight for inclusion and mutual respect going on today all around us. But The Little Crane can charm even the youngest and least jaded audience member. In fact, the show, coming in at a fraction under an hour, will be especially enjoyed by young people. They tend to count out loud better than grownups and are otherwise more expressive as helpers, so be sure to bring some small fry with you if you can. The show allows us to engage with a bit of Washington landscape, take in a lovely dramatized fable, and then talk about parts of our history that have showed us much less than our best selves. If you don’t like sitting on the stony floor or have trouble rising from such semi-incumbent positions, you might want to bring a folding chair.
It’s so nice Capital Fringe includes some gentle, family-friendly works. I’d suggest also that by celebrating artistically with more of our national park spaces and engaging in site-specific works, we will all become better neighbors.