‘Kwaidan’ at Spooky Action Theater

The invention and innovativeness of Spooky Action Theater are endless, and for the first time they are using the entire physical space of The Universalist National Memorial Church – where they have made their theatrical home for the last four years -to mount their latest milestone, Kwaidan. The transportive debut of this theatrical staging marks the Company’s first site- specific performance, and Spooky Action Theater was awarded a $10,000 NEA Challenge America Fast-Track grant to support the production of Kwaidan and related outreach activities.

Inspired by the ghost fantasy folklore of Lafcadio Hearn, native Japanese director Izumi Ashizawa brings evocative, visual theater to life through a series of bewitching Japanese ghost stories. An alluring, melancholic poem on a grand scale, various passions curse each other and fight it out in this ingenious theatrical production of Kwaidan. This unconventional presentation takes the audience on a surreal trip to ghostly Japan, and through a real one, via the interiors of the Neo-Gothic church where the fifteen Kwaidan journeys in thirteen different settings take place.

In Japanese, Kwaidan means “weird tales,” or ghostly tales.

Hearn’s book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, first published in 1904, is the source of the Kwaidan tales in this Spooky Theater production and the supernatural experience is a sumptuous pairing of the mysterious, the cerebral, and the sensual. A unique compendium of ghostly sketches creates an unreal world meeting a heightened sense of spiritual reality.

Kwaidan ensemble in site-specific performance based on Lafcadio Hearn book. Photo by Evy Mages.

Kwaidan ensemble in site-specific performance based on Lafcadio Hearn book. Photo by Evy Mages.

With beauty, subtlety, and shock this eccentric Spooky Action production draws the viewer from the real world – one location to the next – closer and closer to the supernatural. Izumi Ashizawa has created a gut-wrenching realm of discovery where commonsense is thrown aside and your latent instincts are awakened.

Animism is the belief that all plants, animals, and objects possess a spiritual essence. It is a phenomenon that inhabits Ashizawa past works and it’s an inherited philosophy that she explores with Kwaidan.

The structure of the performance is inspired by a Japanese ghost house. Taking tragedy to a new level, the site-specific fun of this theatrical version of Kwaidan is an immersive, interactive experience that involves audience members who will continuously stand and move frequently to follow the action of the performance. (On June 17, Spooky Action Theater will move their production to the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the ADA accessible Sprenger Theatre for two handicap-accessible performances in which Izumi Ashizawa will return to remount the production for that location.)

The Kwaidan experience begins as soon as audiences approach the church doors for entry where you are greeted by a Japanese woman in a traditional kimono who wraps on the door three times. A man dressed in black including a veiled black head covering peeps through a small door opening and announces “The portal will open shortly.” From that moment on, the limited audiences of thirty people at a time follow the actors through a ritual journey and the Kwaidan labyrinth of church spaces including hallways, stairwells, seemingly abandoned rooms, the basement, and even the main sanctuary. The walk of encountering characters and creatures is the contrasting, parallel worlds of East meeting West.

Spooky Action’s Artistic Director Richard Henrich and Izumi Ashizawa wrote the adaptation of Kwaidan from Hearn’s traditional Japanese ghost stories and nightmarish tales in which terror thrives and demons lurk. Ripe with illusion, Kwaidan doesn’t horrify or glorify (there’s no squirting blood); this is a stylish, visual drama of deep-rooted delusion which Ashizawa poses intently to the audience. Within this strange milieu is the deliberate pace and the resonant chanting which added to the creepy and disturbing slow burn tension.

To transport the audience to an authentic Japan setting, the director also designed more than 40 costumes as well as the seven masks created specifically for the production. (The many detailed kimonos worn by the actors are exceptional.) The team efforts of Stage Manager Ellen Houseknecht, and Assistant Stage Manager Erika Foley coordinating this traveling show are to be commended, as does the effectively eerily sound design by Neil McFadden and the shadowy, mood lighting by Brian S. Allard. Czerton Lim’s set design is one room after another nourishing blend of bleakness and elliptical beauty.

This committed cast is truly a model theatrical ensemble where six out of the seven members play multiple roles in the many strange and wondrous characters in the ghostly scenes. The role of Lafcadio Hearn, the central character of the narrative thread between the stories and the audience’s guide, is played by David Gaines with frightening realism and passionate rebellion. The folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry began his writing career in the United States at the age of 19, and at the age of 40 Hearn moved permanently to Japan in 1890. (Hearn became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1895 and changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi.) Incorporating traditional Japanese themes and characters, he became a vessel of Japanese culture to western audiences as a journalist and then as an author of a dozen of books.

The remaining cast are an outstanding group of Asian-American actors: Phillip Chang, Jennifer Knight, Justin Le, Momo Nakamura, Michael Panganiban, Tuyet Thi Pham, and Jacob Yeh. Because the actors are disguised, masked, and continuously creating different characters who are longing and obsessing over someone or something in the changing story lines, it is somewhat difficult to identify who is doing what in each scene – especially while moving and trying to digest the moment. What I can reveal is that the stylized, physical technique of the performances are impressive and the acting is consistently engrossing and fully present. The organic audience interaction is often spontaneous and what is fascinating to observe is how the cast has fully trained for and effectively prepared to appropriately respond to any exchange in character.

The most memorable scene for me, and one of the most visually impressive, is the ninth tale “Miminoshi Hoichi” where ‘Hoichi the Earless,’a blind musician (Justin Le), is kidnapped by an ancient warrior ghosts. A compassionate priest attempts to save him by inscribing his entire body with protective prayer verses and holy texts to prevent any harm coming to him, but he fails to paint Hoichi’s ears. I was also captivated by “Botan-Doro,” the story of the peony lantern and two young people destined to love at first sight. Jacob Yeh and Jennifer Knight are striking in this intriguing ghost mythology that is both romantic and horrific.

The legacy of Kwaidan has inspired generations of spooky, weird tales and storytelling. There is also a lavish film version of Kwaidan directed by Masaki Kobayashi based on four of folklore tales, and in 1965 was awarded the Special Jury’s Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. Spooky Action Theatre will offer a screening of the film on Saturday, June 14 at 3 PM.

Kwaidan ensemble in site-specific performance based on Lafcadio Hearn book. Photo by Evy Mages.

Kwaidan ensemble in site-specific performance based on Lafcadio Hearn book. Photo by Evy Mages.

The strange, unsettling world created by Izumi Ashizawa and the cast succeeds as bizarre and unexpected and is very likely to provoke further investigation into this enchanted world. While most of the Kwaidan tales are short vignettes of a fuller realized version, I would have liked more time with additional extended scenes to enjoy a stronger emotional connection with the characters within the surreal.

Kwaidan is about what is inside the soul, outside the soul and the question of human existence. Audiences will react to and absorb the intimate experiences of Kwaidan differently, but the core of the material and the human relationships in each story are universal.

It is rare to find a truly unique and original experience in theater that the entire family can enjoy, but this surefire Spooky Action Theater production of Kwaidan is the real deal.

Lafcadio Hearn image.

15 ‘Weird Tales’ of Kwaidan

“Of a Mirror and a Bell”
“In a Cup of Tea”
“The Legend of Yurei-Daki”
“A Dead Secret”
“The Story of Umetsu Chubei”

“The Story of Kashin Koji”
“The Corpus Rider”
“The Story of Miminoshi Hoichi” (Hoichi, the Earless)
“Botan-Doro” (Peony Lantern)

Yuki -Onna” (The Show Woman)
“The Story of Tengu”

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.


Kwaidan plays through June 22, 2014 at Spooky Action Theater performing at The Universalist National Memorial Church1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

Meet the Cast of Spooky Action Theater’s ‘Kwaidan’: Part 1: David Gaines and Tuyet Thi Pham

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