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Shadow, harmony and movement in “Mysterious Lake”

The Izumi Ashizawa Performance Company was founded in 2002 and uses Japanese physical performance techniques. PHOTO CREDIT: RICK BURKS
The Izumi Ashizawa Performance Company was founded in 2002 and uses Japanese physical performance techniques. PHOTO CREDIT: RICK BURKS

“Mysterious Lake” provides a unique and immersive theater experience, melding dialogue, dance, chant, fog, shadow and striking puppetry to draw the audience into its world.

Izumi Ashizawa created and directed the play.

Ashizawa is a theater professor at Stony Brook University. Stony Brook’s Theater Arts Department is showing the play, which features both members of the Izumi Ashizawa Performance Company and Stony Brook University students. The first performance was on April 16 in Theater 1 of the Staller Center.

The audience stood in a serpentine line outside the theater doors. When the doors opened they  were not greeted by ushers or theater seating, but led by a guide in a white and red robe, a traditional Japanese Shinto Miko costume, through the theater doors and down a winding path of red gates.

The rest of the theater was dark. It was like walking down the exquisite gullet of some great beast. At the end of the path was a square cloth structure reminiscent of a shrine or temple.

During the performance shadows were projected up on the fabric walls to simulate a forest.

Fog rolled out across the stage, drums and chanting wrapped around the audience. Surreal, dreamlike scenes floated by viewers during the prologue.

The play begins with an American boy, Daniel, who moved to Japan with his father. Sent out on a simple errand, he stumbles upon a secret world lying behind the reality of his own.

He is drawn into this world after an encounter with a mythical water creature, a kappa, which results in them fusing and sharing the same body and mind.

As Daniel wanders through this fantastical reality he meets foreign beings: Japanese Yokai, or spirits of nature.

The spirits he meets are being starved of water. The lake that supplies their water has been dried up for a long time because Nushi-sama, a dragon who is the creatures’ guardian and the source of the lake’s water, has been missing for over seven years.

In order to return to his world and his original form, Daniel must set out on a quest in order to find the lake’s guardian.

He learns that human action in his world affects this secret one. The human’s polluted water corrupts the secret world. The falling trees in his world have drained the lake’s dragon of her power. Daniel’s quest turns toward both finding the dragon and stopping the damage to the world of the mysterious lake.

The play is performed by actor-puppeteers, dressed in black, manipulating an array of life-size, exotic figures.

It is a little strange at first to see people clearly moving behind and working together to manipulate the puppets, but the effect worked because no attempt is made to conceal the performers.

Their movement of the puppets becomes a sort of dance in and of itself because of the grace with which they do it. The puppets themselves hold up well under scrutiny. They are detailed and ornate.

The play explores themes of duality and unity, not through words but through the characters and reality of the play—America and Japan, modern Japan and the ancient world of the forest.

Daniel and the kappa meld into one body, unified; but they will be destroyed if they are not able to separate again—just as Daniel’s reality and the reality of the lake may destroy each other.

Daniel may come away in the end with just enough perception of nature to begin to change the world and the play gives the audience new perception, as well as a good theater should.

The play’s one weakness is the dialogue, which seems overly explanatory at times—the messages of environmentalism and conservation are made almost too clear.

But this is also somewhat of a necessity, as the play is meant to appeal to and educate children as well as adults.

The dragon itself, being life-sized, presents a technical difficulty. The body is somewhat abstract compared to the rest of the puppets, but on the whole it is handled excellently and the head is detailed and fascinating to examine and watch move.

The puppets are unique and something very different from the smaller, puppet-theater-box type puppets one may be familiar with from childhood.

The use of these figures—the boy Daniel, the kappa, the woodland spirits and the dragon—to convey the story has several advantages. It gives the audience something interesting to look at.

By using the puppets instead of real people, it reminds the audience of the symbolic and mythical aspects of the play.

It also helps to reinforce that the play takes place in a different world. The creatures that enter the secret world are different and the adults of the “real” world are represented only by shadows projected on the fabric walls from without.

The movements and dancing of the performers is precise and graceful. Additionally, the fabric walls of the theater, where the audience sits, allow scenes to be played out with shadows projected on the cloth walls. Shadow trees roll in the wind and tumble under chainsaws.

The music and sound, which surround the audience from all sides thanks to the placement of the seating on the stage, is the most wonderful part.

It is what brings the audience into and out of this magically real place.

The chants and folk songs, in addition to the sounds of a Taiko drum, built a whole aural world around the audience and seem to vibrate through you and shift you as you take them in.

The different elements of the play come together well to present a clear set of themes and a unified view of a world.

The Staller Center will hold three more performances of “Mysterious Lake” from Wednesday, April 22 to Friday, April 24.

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