nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
September 13, 2011
In Crane Story, playwright Jen Silverman creates an otherworldly enchanted Japan where ghosts are routinely encountered during rainy season and the Japanese speak in haikus. It’s an intriguing play that correlates the divide between East and West with the divide between death and life, between myth and reality.
The play is inspired by a Japanese folktale about a wounded crane who repays a woodcutter for nursing her back to health by returning to him as a woman and marrying him. To relieve their poverty, she painfully weaves a costly fabric out of her own feathers on the condition that he doesn’t look at her while she weaves, a promise that he ultimately breaks, discovering the depths of her self-sacrifice only as she leaves him forever.
In the play, the drumming fingers of the ensemble cast conjures up the rainy season in Japan along with the onset of Ghost Month. The Crane, played by Christine Toy Johnson, returns in her yearly quest to redeem her lost love, who had drowned himself in a well after her flight. She speaks primarily in verse to a sad-faced bunraku puppet, operated by David Shih, who chases after frogs and eats sandals, deaf to her entreaties.
Similarly, Cassis has also come to Japan from America to settle the ghost of her teenage brother, Junpei, a year after he committed suicide in Shinjuku. Played by Angela Lin, Cassis is a tough American cookie, who resists the Japanese side of her background, insisting that she’s a “hyphen-kid” to her cousin Ishida. Guided by the ghost of the Crane’s drowned husband, she dives into a well to recover her brother’s ghost and discovers an Underworld presided over by Skell, a librarian spirit who files souls according to the color of their dreams.
The use of puppets can be awkward and self-conscious, but the Skell puppet in this play is pretty fantastic. It’s actually sort of a puppet-costume that looks like a giant twisted slinky merged with a paper lantern and topped by a Medusa mask. Susan Hyon, who voices the role and is presumably one of the three operators somewhere in the depths of the giant coils, does a terrific job making the creature come to life. Cassis manages to steal a thirteen year-old version of her brother from the Underworld, causing Skell to emerge to the real world, where she develops the hots for Ishida, much to Cassis’s chagrin. Louis Ozawa Changchien makes a credible it-boy, promising to return to Cassis after he’s spent some time down under with Skell. Well, it is the Ghost Month, when, as the Crane says, “Every edge is a blur.”
I’m Taiwanese so correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe there really is no association between ghosts and rain in Japan. Tsuyu, the rainy season, takes place around the fifth lunar month, while Ghost Month, Obon, takes place in the seventh lunar month. Silverman, who lived in Japan and presumably knows this, takes a poetic license in concocting her romantic vision of a rainy Japan haunted by ghosts, which does nicely underscore the tragedy of the two suicides and heighten the sense of alienation expressed in the play. This is further reinforced by setting Junpei’s suicide in Shinjuku, the neon-lit commercial hub that particularly connotes the disconcerting dissonance between old and new Japan.
In another way, however, Silverman’s fabricated rainy-ghost season increases the play’s already significant disconnection from reality. Besides puppets and anthropomorphized cranes, the relationship between Cassis and Junpei is too idyllic to be true, as sentimentalized as Silverman’s vision of Japan. Beyond the nice chemistry between Changchien and Lin, there is very little in the play that feels authentic, emotionally or culturally, and consequently it’s hard to feel for the bereavement at the heart of the play.
Silverman is strongest in her depiction of Theo, an American musician who was obliviously playing electric guitar in Shinjuku just a few feet away from Junpei when he committed suicide. When Junpei’s ghost returns, he comes to Theo as a woman, looking for the song that was playing when he died, the Saddest Song in the Universe. Theo, in the meantime, has forgotten the song, but as he becomes increasingly captivated by the spirit, his distraught attempts to remember the song are both amusing and poignant. “I will work very hard all night and all day and all night, and I will find the twelve chords for a Variation of the Remix of the Saddest Song in the Universe,” he promises. Jake Manabat, who plays the part of Junpei, does his best Leslie Cheung as the gender-bending ghost. Director Katherine Kovner effectively stages Junpei’s ghostly transformations and disappearances with the utmost simplicity and makes great use of rain falling on the stage.
The picture that emerges from the weaving of all the various threads of this evocative piece is abstract and a little uneven, but it’s ambitious and complex. In searching for a lost Japan of myth, Crane Story becomes a search for a wholeness that is unattainable, a suturing of the duality within.