Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Last Firefly, a new play premiering at Children's Theatre Company, draws upon this ancient theme, weaving elements of seven Japanese folk tales with a contemporary sensibility that honors the spirit of the old stories while making them accessible and entertaining for today's audience. To that end, playwright Naomi Iizuka, director Peter Brosius, an inspired creative team, and a quintet of wonderful actors succeed handily. For the duration of its 80 minutes they fully engage an audience of youth and adults in a story laden with adventure, humor and yearning, presented with beauty and invention.
The tale is a hero's journey: the hero goes on a quest, overcomes challenges, and returns wiser and better able to face his reality. In this case, a boy called Boom lives in fear of his cruel and violent stepfather Ax and is comforted by his mother Kuroko with stories of a boy who is the son of Thunder. Boom desperately wants to believe that the story is about him and that Thunder is his real father. When Ax goes berserk, on the brink of killing both Boom and Kuroko, she urgently insists that terrified Boom run for his life. As he leaves she tells him that, yes, he is the boy in the story. Is this true or has Kuroko said this to give Boom the courage to go into the world alone?
Boom, certain of its truth, goes out in search of Thunder, his "real" father. He meets a taunting monkey who reluctantly becomes Boom's travel companion. Seeking safety, they climb a mammoth, ancient tree that dispenses its wisdom, telling Boom that to find Thunder, he must first find Lightning. Boom's journey proceeds through a rushing river, on the back of a giant tortoise, and up through the clouds. Along the way, Boom spares the life of a spider and discovers the brilliant light of the fireflies. His encounter with Lightning leads to another hurdle for him to surmount, the nature of a hero's journey being for each achievement to pivot into the next challenge.
Children's Theatre Company has a long history of midwifing new plays and musicals, staging over 200 new works since the theatre's inception almost 50 years ago. Naomi Iizuka was commissioned to create The Last Firefly through CTC's Threshold new play development lab. Iizuka, the daughter of a Latina mother and Japanese father, has given The Last Firefly a multicultural patina that transcends place or cultural specificity even as it draws on Japanese folktales and kabuki-like stylization in its performance. CTC Artistic Director Peter Brosius has directed The Last Firefly striking vivid characterizations upon a fluid and fanciful landscape that gives the work a dreamlike quality.
The story has its weak links, such as the unheralded departure of Monkey from the narrative, and Lightning's revelation of a secret that would be expected to change the arc of Boom's but seems to blow gently over without much impact. The importance of the firefly feels understated, a notable element of the story, but not as significant as its elevation to the play's title would suggest. One suspects that in the amalgamation of different folktales, some different strands of plot were not securely knotted together.
In spite of these narrative lapses, The Last Firefly completely entertains, delights and inspires. The entertainment element comes in large part from the generous servings of humor throughout the work, the unexpected twists and turns in the plot, and the persuasive performances by all of the cast members. Ricardo Vázquez transforms himself wholly into Boom, a wide-eyed innocent searching for truth and finding courage within himself. Sun Mee Chomet plays Monkey with wise-guy comic élan and flashing physicality. Luverne Seifert is the archetypal menacing brute as Ax, and also makes a likable wizened old tree nostalgic for better times. Joy Dolo is the essence of nurturing warmth as Boom's mother, and conveyor of calming insights as the Spider. Stephanie Bertumen is limited in the role of Lightning, who responds to Boom's sincere entreaties with hostility. Still, she captures our attention with her bold swagger and (fittingly) electrifying energy.
The delight to be taken in The Last Firefly is in its wondrous physical staging, which uses puppets to serve as fireflies, clouds, birds, and other elements of Boom's journey, and such simple effects as hand-held lengths of blue cloth made to churn up and down to create river rapids, and the brilliant sound design by Victor Zupanc that makes the falling of a tree a sonic event, the song of a bird a plea for understanding, andin lockstep with lighting designer Paul Whitakereach bolt of lightning and its accompanying thunderclap a jolt to the senses. Helen Q Huang has designed whimsical costumes that use fragments of contemporary clothing to accent attire that is part folkloric, part make believe. The stark set uses ladders draped with clouds or tree trunks that allow Boom to access different elevations, while floor to ceiling timbers create a foreboding forest. Stagehands fully in black operate the puppets and move the set pieces, in the style of kabuki.
As for inspiration, it would take a stony heart not to be at least a bit moved by Boom's earnest search for his truth, and his longing for someone or something to give him strength and give his life meaning. The poignancy of Boom's quest is greatly aided by the total commitment of Ricardo Vázquez' performance which stands at the center of the piece throughout.
Children's Theatre Company recommends this play for children in third grade and up. I hardily endorse their judgement, as Boom is drawn into some fights that become intense, and the character Ax could easily terrify younger children.
As a new piece of theater, The Last Firefly succeeds to a large degree, and the possibility of continued work on the play offers even greater potential for its future life. In the meantime, CTC has given it a lovely production that draws out the timeless quality of its hero's journey.
The Last Firefly continues at the Children's Theatre Company through November 13, 2016. 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $15.00 - $54.00. Discounts for children (17 and under), seniors (62+), college students and members of the military. Rush Tickets for unsold seats available at the box office two hours before each performance: $15.00. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for 3rd grade and up.
Writer: Naomi Iizuka, commissioned by Children's Theatre Company; Director: Peter Brosius; Scenic and Puppet Designer: Erik j. Van Wyk Costume Designer: Helen Q Huang; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Composer/Sound Designer: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Kabuki Consultant: David Furumoto: Fight Director: Edward B. Sharon; Beatbox Consultant: Terrell Woods; Assistant Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Stage Manager: Stacy McIntosh; Assistant Stage Manager: Chandler Jordan Hull.
Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Lightning), Sun Mee Chomet (Monkey), Joy Dolo (Kuroko, Spider), Luverne Seifert (Ax, Tree), Ricardo Vázquez (Boom).