… liminality …
Crane Story takes up an interesting topic: mixed states of being. Characters are Japanese and American, can seem both male and female, and move between the world of the living and the dead. As Theo, the American guitarist exasperatedly exclaims to his beloved, I don’t know if you’re alive or dead, or a man or a woman.
To explore the world of liminality, Crane Story uses two separate ghost stories. In the first, invented by the author and told with some characteristics of western realism, a young woman, Cassis, born in Japan and brought up in the U.S., returns to Japan to search out the ghost of her also Japanese-American brother, Junpei, who committed suicide at 17 years. She engages his friend, Ishida, in her quest which takes her to the land of the dead where a huge bureaucrat — a character with a large face mask and played by varying numbers of actors hidden under voluminous white cloaking fabric construction — oversees the rules and record-keeping. Cassis is enabled to bring Jonathan back to our world, though he remains dead, as a 13 year old and then as the 17 year old who, on a trip to Tokyo, engages in a love relationship with an American acoustic guitarist and singer, Theo although eventually he returns to the land of the dead (I think).
In the other story, based on a Japanese folkloric myth of the Crane Wife and presented with something approaching Japanese stylization, a poor man takes in a wounded crane, nurses her back to health and releases her. She returns in the guise of a woman, they fall in love and are married but she makes him promise never to look at her while she weaves a beautiful cloth that they can sell but, eventually, the man takes a peek — shades of Orpheus — and she flies away forever. In this play, though not in the myth, we see the Crane Wife having returned to search for her husband — played by a gaunt, bluish puppet manipulated by visible puppeteers in the Bunraku Japanese puppet tradition — who drowned himself.
In addition to “Orpheus,” there are resonances of the theme of someone alive substituting in the underworld for one who by rights should be dead as in Euripides’ Alcestis and, seen just last year, the compelling Nightsong for the Boatman by Jovanka Bach.
What is impressive about this production is the extraordinary visual theatricality, with set design by Michael Locher and lighting by Ji-Youn Chang, and evocative and just plain beautiful sound design and music by Nathan A. Roberts, melded into an effective and well-paced unit by director Katherine Kovner.
As an example of the visual satisfactions this production offers, the subtle, delicious back lighting of the shelves holding the warehoused scrolls throws them into silhouette so they seem to be leaning against one another, animating them so that the casual array seems like the very souls of the dead.
Some scenes, particularly the one in which Theo realizes his lover appears to be a boy instead of a girl, have emotional intensity. Barret O’Brien, who plays Theo, is not only a touching actor who builds a real character but a singer it feels good to hear and his rendering of “The Saddest Song” is a high point of the play. Kale Manabat as Junpei shows a range of age as well as feelings. Angela Lin expresses through body language as well as verbal ways Cassis’ mixed identity. Louis Ozawa Changchien gives us a glimpse of Ishida’s unfolding emotions. But ultimately the unclear motivations of the characters make one not care a lot what happens to them, and the two ghost stories run parallel without strengthening one another so that at any point one or the other seems irrelevant. Still, Crane Story is often a feast for the eye and ear and the marvelous production values make it fun to watch.
Crane Story plays at The Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan’s West Village through October 1.