BWW Reviews: Spooky Action Theater Scores a Ghostly Coup with KWAIDAN
Anyone interested in an amazing evening at the theater - an unusual one that is difficult to describe - must see KWAIDAN, which Spooky Action Theater is presenting at the Universalist National Memorial Church, in Washington, DC.
The supernatural tale, which Richard Henrich and director Izumi Ashizawa adapted from Lafcadio Hearn's writings, is partly a guided ghost tour, partly a highbrow haunted house, and partly a set of skits, some in multiple parts and some with story lines separate from each other, tied together by a common theme. The Japanese costumes and myths featured in the production help create an other-worldly atmosphere for an American audience in a way that more familiar, western ghost stories cannot - it is more difficult for participants (a more accurate term than "audience members") to predict what is likely to happen when they do not know the stories on which a dramatization is based.
Lafcadio Hearn, who was born in Europe in 1850, came to the United States in his late teens and became a journalist to escape poverty. In Cincinnati, he married a former slave in violation of anti-miscegenation laws. After the marriage broke up, he settled in New Orleans and eventually moved to Martinique to study African-American culture. In 1890, the always restless nonconformist decided to move to Japan to write a book about that country. He fell in love with his new home, married a Japanese woman and became a father, obtained citizenship, and adopted the name of Koizumi Yakumo. KWAIDAN, which means "ghost stories," resulted from his twin fascinations with Japan and the supernatural.
The KWAIDAN experience begins outside, where a kimono-clad hostess greets arrivals at the church's front door. She instructs the visitors to silence cell phones (she waits politely while that task is completed) and to bang with the knocker to gain entry. A peephole slides open and a masked ninja (Richard Henrich, the co-writer) peers out before opening the heavy door and directing the guests to a uniformed "customs officer" (Stephen Michael Krzyzanowski). That individual checks reservations and invites participants to take seats on the opposite side of the foyer.
Eventually, a gong sounds, and an Occidental gentleman in Victorian clothes - Lafcadio Hearn himself (David Gaines) - enters the foyer and explains that he has just arrived in Japan. The customs agent tells him to write everything down, because first impressions are evanescent and "first impressions hold the strongest charm."
Hearn leaves and silent, female guides (MiRan Powell, Gusela White, and Jenna Zhu) gesture to the crowd to follow them into a room in the church, where all the furniture and wall hangings are covered in off-white fabric. Candles and teapots are arranged on a rug in the center of the room. The guides motion to everyone to stand around the perimeter, with Lefcadio Hearn, feverishly taking notes, standing with them. A group of kimono-clad women sit on the rug, pour tea, and discuss a supernatural creature. After that scene ends, the guides usher everyone to one side of the room, where a new scene begins when a young woman - a spirit - (Momo Nakamura) enters the room and begins pacing back and forth.
The production makes imaginative use of the church's space. Scenes take place in hallways and staircases. Two back-to-back scenes take place in a meeting hall, with its wooden chairs gathered into a pile and tied together to serve as scenery.
Although the production includes ghostly yelling, moaning, and singing, there are no cheesy attempts to frighten people by touching them with feathers or jumping out at them; attendees are more likely to scream when the chandelier drops in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA than during KWAIDAN. Nevertheless, pre-teens may find the subject matter in some of the scenes disturbing.
Some of the stories are difficult to follow, but that seemed unimportant. The sensation of traveling to a mysterious place, half in light and half in shadow, and not fully a part of the physical world, is the reason to attend KWAIDAN. I almost believed that I, too, had left the earthly plane, along with the characters.
The rest of the excellent cast consists of Phillip Chang, Jennifer Knight, Justin Le, Tuyet Thi Pham, and Jacob Yeh. The crew consists of Czerton Lim (set design), Brian S. Allard (lighting design), Neil McFadden (sound design), Izumi Ashizawa (costume design), Deb Crerie ( properties design), Carolyn Hampton (scenic artist), Ellen Houseknecht (stage manager), and Erika Foley (assistant stage manager).
The production will run through June 22nd, at 1810 16th St., NW, in Washington, DC. Two ADA accessible performances will take place at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., NE, on June 17th. Attendance for the regular performances is limited to 30 people. The performance schedule is Thursday through Saturday at 7 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 4:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25 through $35. Purchase tickets online at www.spookyaction.org, by phone at 202-248-0301, or on-site one half hour before performances. Free parking is available at the Masonic Temple, across 16th Street. Enter from the alley on 16th Street, to the right of the temple.
Production Photos by Evy Mages.