When playwright Naomi Iizuka was pregnant, she spoke constantly to the boy kicking and growing inside her, telling him stories that drew on her Japanese and Latina heritage.
A decade later, she has shaped some of those tales into an 80-minute epic, “The Last Firefly,” premiering Friday at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
The show is intended as a gift for children in general, but specifically for her 10-year-old son, Luke, who will fly into Minneapolis from their San Diego home to see it.
“I think he will be shocked, because it’s so much more than what he expects,” she said by phone.
Of course, “Firefly” is not just a family affair for Iizuka, a celebrated Yale-trained playwright who has written lyrical, poignant plays that are produced across the country. The show is the big fall event for the Children’s Theatre and one of two premieres in the company’s 51st season.
“Firefly” is grounded in myth but with strong contemporary resonances. In the play, a boy named Boom who has grown up with his mother, Kuroko, a single parent, goes on a quest to find Thunder, the father he has never known. The script also mixes story lines around friendship and our relationship with nature.
“Naomi is a remarkable writer who combines deep humanity and rich, uproarious humor and a sense of adventure,” said CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, who is directing the show. “She has weaved together all these elements that are magical and touching and beautiful, all at once.”
Brosius first championed Iizuka when he hired her to write “Anon(ymous),” which re-imagines the Odyssey as a contemporary tale of immigrants and refugees. At the end of that 2006 production — when Iizuka was pregnant with Luke — Brosius and Children’s Theatre literary manager Elissa Adams approached the playwright with a simple question: What else might Iizuka want to do at Children’s Theatre?
She didn’t have to think about it. Iizuka set about refining the stories that she wanted to offer as a legacy. Over the past seven years, CTC has staged readings and workshops of the play. “Firefly” has shrunk and grown and shrunk again as stories were added, deleted, tightened.
In all those revisions, Iizuka was mindful not to talk down to youngsters, whose experiences and intelligence are sometimes underestimated in works aimed at them.
“Children are smart and caring — they get things,” she said. “They also have harsh experiences, and live through things like divorce that are hard to understand and process. If art has any purpose, it’s surely to help us live our lives in a richer and more emphatic way.”
The theater initially intended the play for much younger audiences. Because of the seriousness of some of the themes — and because it is an epic adventure story with some violence — the recommended age is 8 and above, though some wonder whether it should be higher.
“Firefly” includes one of Iizuka’s favorite tales told to Luke, a fable called “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow.” A noble woodcutter has a pet bird, but his evil, greedy wife dislikes the bird’s singing, so she cuts out its tongue. The bird flies away to the forest where the woodcutter, after a long search, finally finds it. It offers him a choice of baskets, and he chooses the smaller, humbler one, which is filled with treasure. The wife chooses the bigger basket, which is filled with pestilence.
Another story involves trees rising up and taking revenge on a greedy and cruel woodsman. “We’re used to characters that are human or animal seeking justice, but trees are not often heroic that way,” Iizuka said.
“One of the big themes in the play is that we are part of nature, that we are interconnected, and that we have a responsibility to take care of the environment.”
“Firefly,” which has costumes by Helen Huang and puppets by Eric Van Wyk, nods stylistically to Japanese kabuki and anime. The cast, led by Ivey Award winner Ricardo Vazquez as Boom, helps to create some of the scenic elements, including rivers and trees. That’s all part of a holistic approach where nature and people work hand in hand, said Brosius.
Becoming a hero
Vazquez calls Boom’s quest for his father a “hero’s journey” that takes him from age 11 to adulthood, “and from vulnerability to strength.
“He has a huge arc, and starts out afraid of spiders and loud storms, which is ironic, since he’s the son of Thunder,” Vazquez said. “He’s hoping that meeting his father will complete him, that it will tie up the circle.”
Vazquez acts opposite Luverne Seifert, who plays his stepfather, Ax. It is the third time they have paired onstage in similar roles.
The two are having fun in “Firefly.”
“Ax has two scars across his face,” said Seifert, who has played scoundrels and innocents alike. “His costume says Mad Max. He is larger than life and not a nice man.”
Vazquez said Ax reminds him of characters Jack Nicholson would play — the Joker or the possessed dad in “The Shining.”
The cast also includes Sun Mee Chomet, who plays Monkey, and Joy Dolo, who plays the mother and Spider.
“What’s thrilling is that the Children’s Theatre is not afraid to wrestle with some serious issues, even in a show that’s magical like this,” said Vazquez.
Iizuka relishes the opportunity to showcase these stories, many with Grimm-like characteristics that rely on archetypes.
“As a child, I found these folk tales enchanting,” she said, adding that she hopes that audiences will be similarly captivated.
She won’t have to wait long to hear from theatergoers, including her son.
“Kids are the most honest audience you could ask for,” she said.