BWW Review: THE KAIDAN PROJECT Immerses its Audience in an Epic Ghost Story
Horror houses are not my thing. Knott's Scary Farm, Reign of Terror, Universal's Halloween Horror Nights...you can keep them. But tell me a good ghost story and I'm in. Put me in the middle of an immersive theatrical ghost story as artistically beautiful and complex as it is otherworldly and I'm in heaven.
That was the experience I had at THE KAIDAN PROJECT: WALLS GROWN THIN, a co-production by Rogue Artists Ensemble and East West Players staged in a secret location I'm certain has never been used like this before. Everything about it is unpredictable, from the design of the space, and how you move through it, to the way they have adapted an ancient Japanese form of storytelling and turned it into a fascinating adventure into the unknown.
The set-up involves a missing woman, Kana Mori (Jolene Kim at this performance), owner of the storage facility where you now wait for instructions. Her employees have witnessed disturbing events at the site that seem to indicate she is trapped in the building but their attempts to locate her have been futile. Now they have asked for your help.
You sign the guestbook in the lobby and a Mori Storage Employee brings you into the story as your small group of fellow participants gathers. This soft entry into their world allows the characters to quietly tell of their own relationship to Kana and provide an improvised backstory based on their interaction with various members of the audience. My employee guide, Amir Levi, took the answers I gave to his questions and set the tone for my night with a calm but eccentric manner I found to be a perfect prelude to what was about to occur.
Kana's deserted office is where the real story begins. Lights flicker, and as you try to get your bearings, a mysterious phone call from Kana herself instructs you to trust who shows up to guide you and come to her. When you turn around, an ominous figure you most certainly wouldn't want to trust beckons you silently into the old-fashioned wooden lift and takes you to the upper floors. It's dark, there are noises and wails coming from the walls, and even if you wanted to turn back you can't. She appears in the narrow hallway, clearly in distress, and pleads with increasing urgency for your help. The next 70 minutes or so will determine if you are successful. Get ready to have your mind blown.
Writers Chelsea Sutton and Lisa Dring have taken a collection of kaidan - stories of the weird, strange and mysterious - and combined them into a single ghost story with each individual tale contributing in some way to the larger narrative. It includes twists on familiar Japanese myths like Hoichi the Earless and Okiku and the Well that are allegorical in nature but don't get too caught up in the analysis while you're watching them. My best advice is to stay in the moment and take in the experience with all your senses because it is an incredibly rich one and you don't want to miss a thing.
For these two scenes, your group splits into an even smaller number to accommodate the tiny space you are about to enter. Mine was led to the story of Hoichi (Paul Turbiak) and because it takes place early in the night and you really have no idea what is going on yet, it amplifies how eerie it all feels. This performance was one of many highlights.
There are small, delicate scenes and big, extravagant ones, and the ensemble constantly shifts between them. In one area, veiled monks silently move you through a series of rooms fraught with sadness, horror, and regret. Among them, a child's bedroom, a train car, a sand tray room, and a tea room allow you to interact individually with the characters on a personal level. My conversations with Julia Garcia Combs, the woman at the sand tray, and with Kana in the tea room were particularly compelling. They drew me into their worlds so naturally I almost didn't realize I had become part of the story.
In another space you peer through jagged holes in the wall, just big enough for your eyes, to watch a story about Seikichi (Tom Dang) and his lover that incorporates shadow play and other surprising elements. You race along corridors to escape a creature and creep through a passageway to solve a riddle. In yet another space you become part of a horror movie set that spoofs the very town in which we live, like something out of a Tarantino film. It's a wild and surreal ride.
The sheer number of moving parts in this kind of site-specific undertaking boggles the mind. Each scene moves fluidly into the next and the mechanics of the tricks and illusions are so well hidden the magic is never destroyed by an accidental giveaway. The Rogues' extreme performance style incorporates a high level of dramatic invention in every aspect of the performance, and the design team has done some crazy good work putting it all together (scenic designers Keith Mitchell and Dillon Nelson, lighting designer Karyn Lawrence, costume designer Lori Meeker, video designer Matthew Hill, sound designers Steve Swift and Gilly Moon, props designer Glenn Michael Baker, and puppet/mask designers Sean T. Cawelti, Jack Pullman and Brian White).
Cawelti directs the hyper-theatrical event in the company's signature style, which integrates a wide variety of performance techniques set to a haunting original score by composer Adrien Prévost. The emotionally-charged soundscape adds serious sophistication to the piece, elevating this haunted experience to the level of art. Often you feel as though you've been teleported to another time where Kana's dreamlike world and your own have merged into one reality.
Twenty-one actors make up the rotating cast with performances staggered at regular intervals throughout the night. The strongest connection you'll make, or at least the one you have the most contact with, is Kana. It is a demanding role that requires the actress to be emotionally open and able to turn on a dime. Ms. Kim does that and more, riding the fragile line between truth and madness with agonizing intensity. Three additional actresses, who are no doubt equally as skilled, play Kana at other performances: Tane Kawasaki, Jasmine Orpilla and Randi Tahara.
So well-crafted and artistically satisfying is the entire experience that I can't rave about it enough. This hybrid form of ghostly storytelling plunges you into the past from a today that precariously dances on a line somewhere north of reality and south of madness. In that realm, the possibilities are endless.