At a time when most of our theatre diet has the subtlety of chicken-fried steak and gravy, Ping Chong serves a delicate sashimi, with an accent of wasabi. He is a visual poet for whom the stage is a kinetic canvas, a means of expressing both the internal and external worlds of his characters and their stories. Chong is concerned with both the physical world and the spiritual. Using all manner of puppets, interacting with humans, and always suggesting as much as he states, calling "Obon" ghost stories describes as little as calling haiku short poems. At this intersection between life and eternity, the three brief and powerful stories explore questions of consciousness, meaning and legacy.
The tales, based on original texts by Lafcadio Hearn, an American traveler to Japan in the 1890's, all share a certain longing and sadness. In the first, we see clamorous, vicious battle, resulting in senseless bloodshed all in the name of some inchoate heroism. The Warrior, described as a man who is "alive, but not to himself", later kills a mallard that is swimming peacefully on a pond with his partner. Another meaningless death, and even more trivial than most. Until he is made to answer for it. I believe that notion of what it means to be "alive, but not to himself" informs all three of the plays, and holds a common thread in the tension of the evening.
The second play, in which Lady Yukiko (Jennifer Kato) is seduced by her master, and then must answer to the spirit of his dying wife, makes even more extraordinary use of puppet and human, the meeting of inanimate and corporeal. Here we are constantly shifting scale and perspective, both literally and figuratively. The horror of death and guilt that we drag with us, and cannot escape from, is chilling and truly terrible.
In the final play, disloyalty again presents itself in the form of a man who deserts his faithful wife, only to be delivered to a vain and mean-spirited woman altogether a product of the modern world. Here, a blend of video, monstrously scaled puppets (at one point her huge face fills the stage, as she smears on cosmetic beauty with makeup props the size of barber poles), clever and satiric commentary brings us out of the safety of the distant and foreign. We are reminded that all these concerns are as much a part of our world as they were to turn of the Century Japan, or any other period.
While the artistry of Ping Chong is clearly the voice expressing this remarkable work, the stage creation is the product of many fine artists. Puppet master Atsushi Yamato has designed and built everything from dragonflies on a pond to the giant harridan, from shadow warriors to leaping fish. Marvelous original music by Guy Klucevsek has been smartly recorded by David Metschter, and the brilliant, spare set design, sliding paper screens and forestage lines of perspective, by Mitsuru Ishii, is enhanced by exquisitely subtle lighting by Randy Ward. The video projections by Jan Hartley are effective without drawing undue attention. And, of course, the puppeteers are so completely a part of their characters, so much the life within them, that they disappear entirely.
"Obon - Tales of Rain and Moonlight" is only an hour long in its entirety, but it is fully satisfying and hauntingly evocative. Seattle Rep is to be commended for commissioning this World Premiere production, and for bringing this exceptional artist to our attention. Perhaps this is not the sort of work that will ever appeal to a broad audience, especially in our culture, but for those few who are willing to still ourselves, to listen and watch closely, and to attend even when we may not entirely understand, this was a delicacy to be savored.
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