“Crane” brings good fortune to PuppetART
It’s hard to name a production in recent memory that packs the visual impact of “The Crane Maiden,” PuppetART Theater’s latest enchantment. While the set is stark, it is a canvas upon which director Igor Gozman paints in brilliant light, elegant costumes, striking makeup and hypnotic movement. But what holds the audience spellbound for an hour is theatrical magic: inanimate marionettes become as alive as their puppeteers.
Frankly, this production might be too good for the young children for whom it is intended. In fact, though, that sophistication actually stretches the age range of kids who will appreciate it, in addition to parents and grandparents who should delight.
“The Crane Maiden” is a sophisticated work, both technically and emotionally. Yet every child in attendance was as attentive as I, arguably the oldest audience member. What makes this show so accessible is its superb use of the oldest, most reliable of the narrative arts — storytelling.
With an ancient Japanese folktale as their raw material, Maria Mikheyenko and Igor Gozman fashioned a script true to its heritage yet as timely as today. “The Crane Maiden,” we are told, is a story from a time when spirits would meddle in the affairs of men. Two such spirits are the puppeteers; a helpful nurturer represented by the crane (Jaclyn Strez) and a malevolent crow (Nicholas Pobutsky). They contemplate the life of a poor but honest young man, Tarou, and literally, as well as figuratively, begin pulling his strings. They are struggling for the nature of his soul; the Crane wants him to remain as he is, a gentle gardener, while The Crow wishes to darken his spirit with an obsession with material wealth.
The evil spirit wounds a red-crowned crane, a traditional Japanese symbol of luck and fidelity. She flutters into Tarou’s garden, where he heals her. As a reward for his compassion, the crane is transformed into a beautiful maiden, who becomes Tarou’s wife.
Western tradition demands folk stories end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” But “The Crane Maiden” is an example of the most fundamental instructive tool Man has ever employed–the cautionary tale. The dual theme of this story teaches that promises are not made to be broken and the love of money is indeed the root of all evil. Those are life lessons that even a child can grasp, especially when the lesson comes so attractively packaged.
That attractive package is evident even before the curtain rises. That’s because production designer Irina Baranovskaya uses traditional Japanese paper panels instead of a curtain. When they first slide open they reveal the opposing spirits in a dance.
Their stately, ritualistic movement is absolutely mesmerizing. Strez and Pobutsky don’t waste a single gesture. This is storytelling without words — the dance tells all. But the real miracle is how well these technicians go on to elicit believable performances from wood, wire and cloth. The marionettes, Tsu, Tarou and his greedy neighbor, Gounzou, are capable of astonishingly subtle gesture — no small feat when neither fingers nor wrists are articulated. Irina Baranovskaya and S. Cardew have engineered marvels.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Kuroko, the stagehand of Kabuki theater. Tall, robed and masked, he is a menacing character. In Japanese theater–by common consent–the Kuroko is ignored, but Dave Sanders is too good in the role to ignore.
Maria Mikheyenko’s incidental music–excerpts from “The Gate” by Joji Hirota and the music of the Noh Theater–is beautiful. She has also contributed some attractive original songs. Taken as a whole, the score reflects the same sense as the script — oh, so very old and yet so very new.