“The Last Firefly,” Naomi Iizuka’s taut and electric one-act that premiered Friday in Minneapolis, may seem like an odd choice for Children’s Theatre Company. The top of the 70-minute play is rivetingly scary, as we are introduced to a trembling 11-year-old boy, Boom, who is haunted by the thought of his menacing stepfather.
But “Firefly” is a classic quest story. And like the characters in, say, “The Wizard of Oz,” Boom goes on a search only to discover that what he seeks out there in the world he already possessed.
In “Firefly,” Iizuka artfully and elegantly mashes up Japanese folk tales and fables into a play that manages to be simultaneously a fairy tale and contemporary. But some of the classic fairy-tale archetypes, like the wicked stepmother or the evil crone, are inverted in Iizuka’s retelling, which voids the sexism that plagues our oldest tales. And the fact that Boom is being raised by a single mom who tells him stories to comfort him makes the play relatable.
The action in “Firefly” begins in a prolonged darkness as a mother’s melodic lullaby washes over the audience. Then a light, small at first, gradually enlarges on the singer, Kuroko (Joy Dolo). She is trying to comfort Boom (Ricardo Vazquez), who has reasons to be fearful. His stepfather, Ax (Luverne Seifert), is a man who fells trees. He also is an abuser, threatening both the boy and his mother. Both flee, and Boom goes in search of his father, Thunder.
Along the way, Boom meets Monkey (Sun Mee Chomet), who makes fun of him even as she becomes his adventure buddy; and fearsome Lightning (Stephanie Bertumen), who tests his mettle.
Director Peter Brosius’ production is energetic, evocative and cleanly told. Once teed up, the action unfolds at a relentless clip until the end, which mirrors the opening scene but with deeper meaning.
The production has a chiaroscuro design palette that combines Helen Huang’s animé- and Kabuki-influenced costumes with Eric Van Wyk’s puppets and stark scenic elements. Electric storms alternate with quiet, even precious scenes that involve birds and spiders. But the most impressive part of “Firefly” is the acting quintet, four of whom play multiple roles.
Vazquez plumbs Boom’s innocence with a doe-eyed physicality. Open and inviting, he draws us into his character’s spirit, making it easy for us to root for him as he travels through a forest of talking trees and riverbed rocks that come alive.
Chomet, who has essayed roles from Lady Macduff in “Macbeth” to her recent spitfire character in “The Two Kids That Blow S--- Up,” reveals new shades of her talent with her highly physical Monkey. Monkey is a no-nonsense, witty character that Chomet mines for comic gold.
Dolo, also, is showing some good range. Her Kuroko is a contemporary mother who struggles to be patient while her Spider is witty and mythic.
Seifert’s Ax knows only evil, but the actor shows his humor as the talking Tree who pleads for humans to stop degrading the forest.
As Lightning, Bertumen has the most fun of all, throwing her bolts and her weight around even as the character finds commonality, and family connection, with Boom.
Iizuka’s play is as much about a young boy as it is about stories we share to help us find our way out of challenges. This production of “Firefly” should not be the last.