Friday, April 16, 2004

Folding, not breaking: Kabuki shows the strength of a paper crane

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Take a seat. Sit mute, without moving. Watch. Listen. Feel. Sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts.

Lights brighten as a girl steps forward from a delicately painted set full of robust colors. They are hues of life, of unbridled energy, of unconquerable power. Youthful vigor and atomic fury collide on the walls.

The girl begins to run, already racing towards a future of untold promise, and trying to elude a past that is close behind her and catching up. She is Sadako Sasaki (Michele Lee), now 12, who was a two-year-old girl when, on August 6, 1945, the US dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan.

In a 40-minute performance heavily influenced by the Japanese kabuki style of theater, Sadako’s story is retold at the Children’s Theatre of Maine.

Kabuki plays often deal with the conflict between humanity and a larger system or social structure, such as a wartime government’s impossible choice between the death of millions or merely hundreds of thousands.

This play combines the two main types of kabuki plays, historical dramas and stories about normal people. It includes ritualized gestures and line-delivery that is more singing or chanting than speaking.

There are also amazing masks with bright colors and strong designs, which clarify character elements in this three-actor, multiple-character show. At the same time, the masks slightly obscure speech — not enough to matter, but enough to anonymize the speakers, as when masked doctors report on Sadako’s condition.

Nancy Brown and Richard Gammon play the roles of doctors, parents, and friends, as well as Sadako’s grandmother, felled instantly when the bomb struck. Brown’s presence on stage — and Lee’s — is a significant departure from kabuki’s no-women-actors tradition, but the adaptation is more than appropriate. While the break from tradition would raise eyebrows in Japan, in the US, having men play the female roles would be worse than distracting.

Brown and Gammon work well together, often separated by an entire stage and not even looking at each other, but moving and speaking together and in counterpoint. Their movements and lines are precisely delivered, with just enough passion to have meaning without losing the strict composure and reserved aspect possessed by many Japanese people.

Even Sadako’s lament, when she is struck down by "the atom bomb disease," leukemia, is subdued.

"I don’t have any scars from the bomb. It didn’t touch me," she cries, not understanding that the bomb’s real blast was invisible. It was not just a bomb that leveled her house, killed her grandmother, and seared her neighbors’ shadows on the walls.

As the dead of Hiroshima later tell her in a vision, "The bomb continues to fall, Sadako. It is falling even now."

Youthful innocence attempts to triumph in this tragedy. Sadako’s friend Kenji (Gammon) arrives with a legend and a message of hope: A person who folds a 1000 paper cranes will have her wish granted by the gods.

Sadako wishes for her grandmother to live, for herself to be well, and for no bomb like that ever to happen again. (She forgets it already did, three days after the bomb came to her hometown.)

As Kenji demonstrates folding the crane, he is turned away from the audience — and toward Sadako. It means we can’t see the nimble fingers and intricate movements that for nearly two full minutes are the only action on the stage. Turning slightly toward those watching would show the skill required in executing a flawless crane under stage lights and dozens of watching eyes.

It is with the crane-folding that the play differs from the story told by the World Peace Project for Children, the real-world organization inspired by Sadako’s story. The play says Sadako did not manage to fold 1000 cranes before she died in 1955, at age 12. The Peace Project says she folded more than that number.

The disparity is important. Either she did not manage to appease the gods in time, as the play suggests, or the gods chose which wish to grant — and it wasn’t her grandmother’s resurrection or Sadako’s own survival. Whichever is the case, the story is an inspiring one, simply and powerfully told.

It ends with the description of a statue of Sadako erected in 1958 by Japanese children in the Hiroshima Peace Park. In her outstretched arm she holds an origami crane. On the base is inscribed, "This is our cry, this is our prayer — Peace in the world."

A replica of that statue in the Seattle Peace Park was vandalized in December. The arm holding the crane was chopped off.

A Thousand Cranes
Written by Kathryn Shultz Miller. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. With Michele Lee, Richard Gammon, and Nancy Brown. At Children’s Theatre of Maine, through April 18. Call (207) 828-0617.


• Correction: After a review in the Phoenix, director Michael Howard did not attend the following performance of Macbeth by the Stage at Spring Point last summer. It was not a rehearsal he missed. Backstage apologizes for the error.

• Starting April 23, Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth will be performing an original production inspired by and based on the New Hampshire ties of e.e. cummings. Pontine artistic directors Greg Gathers and M. Marguerite Mathews created and will perform the show, called Silver Lake Summers: an e.e. cummings revue. Cummings spent many summers, as a boy and as an adult, in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. Call (603) 436-6660 or check "Listings" for details.