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Flash Review 1, 10-31: Ghost Stories
Tricks and Treats from Ping Chong & Co.

By Peggy H. Cheng
Copyright 2000 Peggy H. Cheng

On the chill-to-the-bone, windy, dark Sunday afternoon before Halloween, I had the great pleasure of attending the ghost-story triptych, "Kwaidan," a Ping Chong & Company production, at the New Victory Theater. The multi-disciplinary talents of Ping Chong -- theater director, playwright, choreographer, and video/installation artist -- in collaboration with puppet inventor Jon Ludwig and art director/set designer Mitsuru Ishii transformed the stage into a dwelling for the spirits and demons of "Kwaidan." This piece is based on the book (of the same title) by Lafcadio Hearn, which is a translation of Japanese ghost stories.

Throughout the performance I have an over-riding source of wonderment; it is the magic of changing perspectives. Mitsuru Ishii's clever set design involves sliding doors and windows, revealing various characters and scenes; much like a stage-size curio box that holds surprises in every niche. The set of sliding doors in the back (which also served as projection screens when closed) open to reveal a birdās-eye view of a room; or to simply frame the head and shoulders of a prone figure; or a demonās eye; or the entire arcing edge of one side of the planet Earth. With lighting design by Liz Lee, projection design by Jan Hartley, and sound design by David Meschter, each one of these pictures is further enhanced, ripening into a wondrous scene and becoming a full story. In addition, there are puppets of all sizes, ranging from much smaller than human to human-sized, and then much larger. For example, "The Story of Jikininki" opens with a landscape painting background, an image much like traditional Japanese brush paintings in black ink on a parchment-like paper. A tiny figure of a monk treads along with walking stick, disappearing down a side of a hill to become revealed again as a human-sized puppet approaching a hermitās hut on the mountain. In "The Story of O-Tei" two young lovers are giant puppets that are mostly head and upper torso, framed and lit on either side of the stage, and in their large size, their faces seem a bit closer, more intimate as they discuss the fate of their love.

There are also humans on stage and backstage: David Ige, an actor who plays the blind boy Hoichi in the second ghost story entitled "The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi"; and the diverse and skilled puppeteering of Pamella OāConnor, Lee Randall, Fred C. Riley III, and Don Smith. Two of the puppeteers also venture on to the stage to very aptly portray the clowning antics of two characters with lanterns, gone to rescue the blind boy Hoichi from his bewitchment in a graveyard.

Puppets, humans, images, sounds, and voices inter-mingle to produce new perspectives: the beautiful pictures revealed from behind the screens of the giant curio-box. Although the New Victory is a theater for young audiences, "Kwaidan" will be just as enthralling for any adult. I for one (although it may not be far-flung to call me a kid) found myself oooohing and ahhhhing, commenting out loud, and giggling just like the kid to my side. "Kwaidan" runs for five more shows this weekend, Friday, November 3 through Sunday, November 5. For information and tickets, please visit the New Victory web site.

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