One of the most moving stories from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is that of Sadako Sasaki. An infant at the time of the bombing, she later developed leukemia, and as a dying 12 year old embraced the myth that promises a wish will be granted to one who folds 1,000 paper origami cranes. Sadly, she died before completing the task, but her inspiration lives on. In JC Lee’s fantasy, “Crane”, he integrates the 1,000 cranes narrative with another myth in which a crane weaves brilliant tapestries from her own feathers for a man who rescued her from injury.
Lee’s Sadako is a young woman who feels trapped in her home and escapes because she feels the need to fly. In her quest, she trudges through snow-covered mountain passes and comes upon a cabin occupied by Bradley, an artist who previously had breakout success but can no longer produce marketable work. Eventually, Sadako will produce beautiful tapestries for him to claim as his own, but only if Bradley never watches her work.
As Sadako, Monica Ho creates an empathetic character. Sadako is cynical about people’s motivations and reveals a hardened view that all that is good requires sacrifice. Yet, Ho is embraceable. You care for her. With minimal change in facial expression, she elicits sympathy, and without changing her speech pattern, she makes a single word funny.
Unlike the strong Sadako, Bradley, played by Greg Ayers, is floundering. The gallery owner who had carried his tapestries has dumped him, and he is living hand to mouth. Ayer’s expression of anxiety is palpable. He conveys Bradley’s haplessness through sad expression and doleful speech. Though he is also a likeable character, what do we think of his taking credit for work that is not his? But is Sadako really a woman, or a bird, or a friendly fantasy that drives an artist’s revival?
Director Mina Morita has orchestrated the pieces of the drama deftly. The stage is largely comprised of step ladders, boxes, and other components that look like leftovers and back stage implements. But the backdrop is dominated by a glowing moon figure with a silhouetted leafless branches, providing a strong Asian look. A playful prop device is the injured bird, represented by an illuminated bulb covered with fluffy feathers that is raised and lowered from the fly. Another distinction is Sadako’s outfit, which is a brightly layered, reminiscent of another with avian connections who is on a quest – Papageno in “The Magic Flute”.
Leon Goertzen is in support as the gallery owner, with traits one might expect – flamboyant, self-indulgent, and condescending when shedding his client. But when he sees the new work and is astonished, he turns unctuous and supportive. Goertzen is very comfortable in all those expressions. Lily Tung Crystal portrays the disconsolate mother that Sadako leaves behind and the doctor that examines Sadako at Bradley’s behest. Her roles were limited in expressive range and stage time, but Crystal was as effective as required.
“Crane” does have some slow moments, but whatever dragging effect may have been exacerbated by the discomforting temperature in the theater on opening night. Otherwise, it is clever and engaging. Because the story is sourced from Japanese myths, it is full of generally accepted Japanese symbols. The text and staging lend themselves to revealing other possible tokens for additional interpretations, giving the work a rich complexity worthy of discussion.
“Crane” by JC Lee plays at NOH Space, San Francisco, through October 11. It is produced by Ferocious Lotus Theater, Director: Mina Morita. Scenic Design: Kuo-Hao Lo. Costume Design: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Lighting Design: Kevin Landesman. Sound Design: Emily Fassler. Properties Design: Yusuke Soi.
Cast: Bradley: Greg Ayers. Mother, Doctor: Lilly Tung Crystal. Gallery Owner: Leon Goertzen. Sadako: Monica Ho.