When the audience members entered the dimly lit CFA Dance Studio on Saturday and sat on the floor, they were all a little unsure what to expect. The room was surprisingly bare, with nothing but a screen at the front and a lone drummer (Lu Corporan ’13) off in the corner, stoically awaiting the show’s commencement. All I really knew about the show was that it involved puppets and a frog, so I was half-expecting a bunch of goofy-looking felt puppets a la Jim Henson. However, when the lights went down, the rear projector went up, and Corporan began to bang his drums, it became apparent that these were no ordinary puppets. They were doing this Bali style.
For those unfamiliar with Balinese puppetry, it’s a unique style wherein two-dimensional leather figures are placed in front of a light source, usually a candle, to cast silhouettes onto the screen. However, the differences between Balinese and Western puppetry extend far past the dimensional differences. In Bali, the art of puppetry holds an immense cultural significance, with the shows being used to impart important moral, spiritual, and sometimes even political themes onto the viewer. These immensely fascinating differences are the focus of senior director Tessa Young’s theater thesis.
“I’m trying to adapt this Balinese tradition into an American production, and I believed that the best way to do this was through the adaptation of a foreign text,” Young said.
Young drew from experiences during her semester abroad in Japan and chose to base her production on an English adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. Adapted for the stage by Matthew Krakaur ’14, “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” tells the story of Mr. Katagiri, a lowly collections officer who has never caught a break in his life. One day, he returns to his home, only to find a giant frog waiting for him. The frog tells him that he is a sort of spiritual warrior and that he needs Katagiri’s help in order to prevent an apocalyptic earthquake from destroying Tokyo.
The play itself wasn’t incredibly long lasting about 45 minutes, but it was a complex tale nevertheless. Without spoiling anything, as Katagiri and Frog set out to prevent the disaster, the play certainly took some interesting turns. Furthermore, the story itself was infused with complex themes of responsibility and duty. Even though the strange story did at times get a little dark, it was still constantly balanced by a healthy sense of humor, one which both acknowledged the oddity of the events and exacerbated it with constant esoteric references to Western writers. While the story was sparse yet satisfying, the true joy of the play was to be found in its execution.
The show’s set consisted solely of a screen, but a projector allowed Young to do some very interesting things with the setting. First off, the projected backgrounds acted as sets, with changes in background signaling Katagari’s home; the streets of Tokyo; or strange, dark underground tunnels.
The show was also willing to leave the real world and delve into the mind of the characters. For example, when Frog would shout, Katagiri would grow much smaller in the face of his companion’s rant. Likewise, during phone conversations, one character would be superimposed over the side of the screen. Sometimes, even the silhouettes of the actors themselves would momentarily become characters in the show. This added a certain otherworldly aspect to the show, allowing it to transcend the boundaries of the real world to explore this strange spiritual tale.
The show was carried by four actors. Eli Timm ’13 and Josef Mehling ’14 played The Frog and Katagiri, respectively. As voice actors, they were both fantastic, giving incredibly colorful and cartoonish performances that breathed comedic life into the show. The contrast between the nervous, stuttering Katagiri and the loud, grandiose Frog added depth and levels to the actors’ multifaceted performances.
Christine Treuhold ’13 operated the puppets of some of the supporting characters and stepped out from behind the screen to deliver a serene narration of the strange events. Young herself also operated a handful of the characters as well as the projector. Beyond their skilled voice acting, all actors did excellent jobs with the puppetry, not only conveying expressions solely through the movement of the puppets’ arms and body but also dealing well with the strange moments when the play would delve into Katagiri’s psyche. All this was expertly accompanied by Corporan’s drum beat.
“Super Frog Saves Tokyo” was a surreal yet extremely fun experience for all involved. It managed to masterfully adapt its unique style to an incredible story, and in doing so explored complex themes of responsibility and the role of the individual. What was truly masterful about the show, though, was the way in which Young combined a Balinese style of puppetry with Western methods of production and a Japanese story in order to create an engaging blend of styles, cultures, and ideas.