BY TAMAR NEUMANN: The latest production from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT), The Story of Crow Boy, is an adaptation of the children’s book by the same name. But due to the nature of theatre and the collaboration of this production, it is much more than that. It goes beyond the short children’s story and tells the autobiography of Taro Yashima. The play begins with Yashima as a little boy and follows his eventful life essentially to the end. Most of the moments are known as the program notes detail Yashima’s life, so there are few storyline surprises. Even so, the story is interesting, especially to those of us who are unfamiliar with Yashima and his work. He lived through important moments of history and his experience in those moments helps us better understand our world. By sharing these pieces of his history with others it makes our knowledge of history a little bit richer.
HOBT’s production chooses to take an imaginative approach to this story using images, puppets (of course) and music to tell this story in a mostly symbolic way. The story is easy to follow, although some of the larger imagery and moments are not always clear. Of course, that is the beauty of symbolism and imagery—it’s always up to the viewer to determine the meaning. Not all of these instances were successful in the play, but many of them were strikingly beautiful. During one poignant scene we learn about Yashima’s imprisonment in Japan. Masanari Kawahara, portraying Yashima, folds himself under the table onstage and proceeds to detail the harrows of this part of his life. For this reviewer, it was the most emotional piece of the play. The intensity and imagery of the stage made the cruelty of that event tangible.
There were other beautiful moments throughout including the moment that Yashima and his wife found out about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As they listen to the radio and are showered by newspapers there is a sense of futility. They can only stand and listen as this devastating event happens around them and, in a sense, to them. The US was irrevocably changed (and, in this case so was Yashima’s family and friends still in Japan), yet there was nothing they could do to stop, change, or fix it. They were bystanders to an event that changed everything.
Momoko Tanno, Yashima’s wife, connects pieces of the play together with her voice. Tanno is also the music director for the play. Her choices led to a fairly simply musical score throughout. It fit the entire play’s minimalist structure. There were quiet sounds, songs sung by the cast, and drums that drove the play forward, But Tanno’s voice was the star. Her haunting song after a loss in the play helped capture the depth of her grief, and there were other moments where her voice filled the theatre with emotion.
While there were many great moments, this play was not always successful. There were a number of places that seemed to drag. At the end of the story of Yashima’s life the play then tells the story of The Crow Boy. While this appears to be a sweet moment between father and daughter, the actual telling of the story seems unnecessary to the play. And while some people might love the crow that seems to haunt every part of this play, it often seemed a little out of place. The crow scenes were the moments that made the play feel like it had descended into an odd, interpretative poetry night.
In the end, HOBT has created a unique experience. It’s an opportunity to reflect on history through the eyes of someone who lived a different side of the story most of us are familiar with. And, if you’re not scared off by a few tiny nude puppets or crows with shifting meanings, this play might just find a place in your heart.
The Story of Crow Boy, Created by Masanari Kawahara, Sandy Spieler, Steven Epp and Momoko Tanno. February 18-28 at the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 E Lake Street, Minneapolis. Tickets $22, $18 for students, $15 for children under 14. (This show is recommended for children 11 or older); purchase advanced tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.