After spending several evenings recently in the glam palaces of local theater, Thursday’s diversion down Lake Street to In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre felt like visiting an old mom-and-pop shop.
Mom, in this analogy, would be Sandy Spieler, HOBT’s longtime artistic director. She has gathered a group of estimable artists for her first fully realized stage show in maybe a decade. “The Story of Crow Boy” draws on the talents of Masanari Kawahara, Momoko Tanno and Steven Epp. And while this 90-minute ritual retains the rough simplicity of HOBT productions, the heft of artistry is quite evident.
“The Story of Crow Boy” chronicles the life of Taro Yashima, a Japanese artist and writer who fled the militarism of his homeland in the 1930s, struggled to convince his new American compatriots that not all Japanese were bad and then found his stride writing children’s books in the 1950s. “Crow Boy” was among his best known. It is the story of a young boy who is bullied and finds his esteem in imitating the calls of crows. Yashima’s story is worth telling, and in the HOBT staging, it is worth watching.
Epp and Daniel Benoit have fashioned a series of video projections that fill several large panels of rice paper set at the back of the stage. In one case, a dense sketch of pencil etchings creates the sense of a prison, where Yashima was detained after protesting Japan’s military government. A lapping ocean and a passenger ship signal his flight to America. Frequent images of crows fly through, and Yashima’s art creates other evocative images. It is a pulsing black and white landscape that beautifully illustrates the narrative.
Spieler, dressed in a crow costume, flits constantly near the action — sometimes contributing percussive music — as Kawahara, Tanno and actor Steve Ackerman largely tell the story. Mind you, this is not a static telling. Kawahara is a gritty physical performer as he twists and moves. Tanno uses her terrific singing voice and, at one critical point, also dons a crow costume and contributes a powerful avian melody.
This is a production steeped in ceremony and innocence, yet aware of the world’s brutality. The projections on the screen prevent me from saying it’s low-tech because what they pull off with that trick is frankly above my pay grade. But there is a charm and a warmth in HOBT’s homemade aesthetic — with the trademark masks and puppets mixing with human performers.
It is good to see Spieler back on stage, especially with these collaborators. In an artistic world searching for diversity these days, the shambling old theater on Lake Street is perhaps more important than ever.