This review originally appeared in JQ magazine.
Presented by The Playwrights Realm, the drama Crane Story stars Angela Lin as Cassis, a young Japanese American on an odyssey to rescue her brother’s soul from the land of the dead.
Written by Jen Silverman and directed by Katherine Kovner, Crane Story runs through Oct. 1 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village. Here’s what JQ‘s critics had to say at a Midtown diner after a recent performance.
Justin Tedaldi: What were your thoughts about the production?
Vlad Baranenko: Given the limited resources that they have being Off-Broadway, they did a very good job with the imagery and the special effects.
JT: I really liked the way the creative team put everything together with the scenery and the costumes, especially the sound effects. There’s a raised wooden stage where most of the action happens, and at the very beginning they describe rain, but you see the rest of the cast drumming their fingers on the stage, which creates the illusion of falling rain. Very creative ways of getting around the limitations that come with being an Off-Broadway production.
VB: I agree on that. The cast obviously remembered their lines really well. It didn’t seem forced, actually; very natural. In that regard, I give them high marks.
JT: I’m reading here that the actor who plays Ishida, Louis Ozawa Changchien, appeared with Adrien Brody, Topher Grace and Laurence Fishburne in the movie Predators.
VB: He looks like someone who’s got some pretty good experience under his belt. He comes off as very authentic in the way he acts, and that’s one of the first things that I noticed.
JT: He’s a much more seasoned actor here, definitely. He seems a bit older than the rest of the cast, bit I want to give a shout-out to Angela Lin, who plays Cassis. She has an Emma Stone kind of quality, where she plays in between a teenager and a mature woman, so she walks this line between cynicism and a tender vulnerability to the things that happen. She expresses a lot with her eyes and face, and you can really see that from the audience.
VB: The American character, Barret O’Brien, who plays a vagabond…
JT: He’s a musician, man.
VB: (Laughs) I’m sorry, I thought that was the exact same thing.
JT: One thing about this plot is that the playwright wants to peel away the layers like an onion, so the audience is trying to piece together the plot as it happens. I don’t know if that’s always best for the drama, because at the end of the first act we were introduced to two new characters, including the musician, whose intent was purposely unclear, so you feel more frustrated than engaged by the story itself. Somehow, Lin’s character enters the spirit world and is able to bring the younger self of someone back to life…
VB: What do you suppose is the purpose?
JT: We don’t know any of this. And they somehow seem to have the ability to go back in time, too, but they don’t explain this. As for the crane, the actress, Christine Toy Johnson, is on stage for virtually the entire play, observing the characters, but that never pays off.
VB: Yes, definitely, I couldn’t agree more. I was expecting for the connection to be more evident towards the end, but the second act closed without that realization.
JT: There is a strong affinity for the Japanese culture in the dialogue. I think Silverman knows enough about it, like how Japanese people are indecisive and yes means no and all those things. That’s very well observed, because the lead character is grappling with her own “half” identity at the same time. And that’s a tough thing to do when you’re juggling the supernatural angle that you have here with a more realistic drama with family issues and cross cultural adjustments, with the characters trying to break through and get an idea of not only who their identities are, but also just where this thing is going story-wise.
VB: The over-complication of the story did take away from its cohesiveness. I think the winner, if you want to make it a contest, is the production. I thought the sound and pre-recorded effects were spot-on—everything was in tune and on cue, really impressive. As for the actors themselves, the delivery of lines was very fluid, and it was very believable.
JT: I thought the performances in the second act were even stronger. They really found a rhythm.
VB: That’s what really stuck with me more than anything, how natural everything seemed.
JT: You really believe the characters. One of the actors played a triple role for the same person, including an ethereal, transvestite version of himself.
VB: I didn’t fully get that.
JT: Me either, but I commend the fact that he was able to wear all these different hats. There’s no way to explain it.
VB: I’m very curious what they were trying to do with that, but he did a pretty good job.
JT: The costumes were great, and the bunraku parts with the ghost was also incredibly well done.
VB: The puppets themselves looked very good, too. The spirit “keeper” Skell, played by Susan Hyon, seemed very Japanese, too, with three or four people operating that thing at some point, and they were able to act in a cohesive manner and the parts where they spoke at the same time was spot-on, too. It’s very impressive. It’s a lot of lines to remember, right?
JT: It is. It’s not a very big cast, and a lot of the main players are almost always onstage.
VB: The visual and the auditory aspects of the play were spot-on. The part with the rain where they put a little vent in the stage, that was very, very well done.
JT: The dialogue is poetic at times, too, especially coming from the crane herself. Some of the lines felt a little forced, like when she said things like “a dry bone whistling in the wind” and “the mountains surround the fog.”
VB: I think her lines were probably my least favorite, and although I understand that her role was more of a narrator, I felt that they left a bit of a void.
JT: A little of that goes a long way.
VB: The role of her character, I think, didn’t really stand out and achieve the intended effect.
JT: They could have just had her in the beginning, in the prologue…
VB: She would make an occasional appearance, but that’s it. And then there’s that scene where it seems like she goes to hell to make a deal with the record keeper…
JT: I thought that would explain some things, but it raised more questions than it answered.
VB: Exactly, there seems to be very little correlation. It almost felt like there was really no reason to call the play Crane Story, since the main plot didn’t follow the theme of the original folktale.
JT: I think if there’s one big theme here, it’s love and loss. One of the ties is romantic, and then there’s one that’s familial. And then you have another romantic tie that develops later between two of the characters, but it’s taken away almost as quickly as it began. Maybe that’s what they’re trying to express here, that love is temporary; I guess there’s a lot of ways you can read into that. But I do like that they had a romance kindled in the second act. It would have been nice if they explored that more instead of falling back on the supernatural angle, which had already run its course by then.
VB: I think they tried to explain too much too quickly.
JT: In the end, for someone who’s lived in Japan and has an interest in Japanese culture, theater and performing arts, it’s definitely worth seeing because you get a lot of good visuals—you get bunraku, kabuki style with the shishi-mai, you get all that stuff in there that you wouldn’t easily be able to find here, even in New York. So that part is good. But the story, I think a lot of people will feel like they’ve maybe seen this before or that it isn’t strong enough on its own.
VB: And the perception of Japan through the eyes of the foreigner that comes up quite a bit in the story, that’s somebody who’s lived in Japan could identify with, as well.
JT: Even though the plot drifts in and out, it still has enough presence within the entire play to give it is own identity and character.
VB: I think the play was made for people who have experienced Japan, because of the numerous references to Roppongi and Shinjuku and street musicians; if somebody hadn’t been there, it really wouldn’t have resonated with them. So I think Silverman did a really good job.
JT: The musician guy even says, “Why are all Asian women crazy?”, to which some gentleman in the audience—it wasn’t us—laughed out very loud when he heard that, so I’m sure that was some kind of mutual experience being shared.
JT: I would be interested in seeing future works from the playwright.
VB: I know I said it before, but the technical crew deserves quite a bit of praise.
JT: The fact that Silverman was able to take a very simple tale and weave it into a two-hour show that holds your interest is something; it’s just that the execution is not as strong as the visuals and the technical excellence on display.
VB: So, a story with unanswered questions; got a boost from very strong acting; and well-executed technical aspects.
JT: Great visuals integrated seamlessly. Let’s look forward to something similar by the same names in the future, whether it’s Off-Broadway or beyond. Maybe they can revive Shogun: The Musical. Anything else to add?
VB: Yes. I’m looking forward to my cheeseburger.
Crane Story plays at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 1. For more information, visit http://playwrightsrealm.org.
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