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Political Puppets 

Napkins, chopsticks, and teapots bring a Japanese internment camp to life

Wednesday, Aug 24 2005
Lunatique Fantastique's Executive Order 9066 is an unusual kind of concentration camp play. There are no verbatim testimonies from real-life prisoners to give the work a veneer of journalistic vérité; no graphic scenes of guard brutality to make viewers run out and buy every anti-war bumper sticker they can lay their hands on; no orphans, no songs about escaping into one's inner life, and no actors doing impersonations of political figures. In fact, there are no actors, in the traditional sense of the word, at all: The cast consists of a few napkins, a pair of chopsticks, a small suitcase, a teapot, a pair of old boots, and a motley assortment of other everyday objects.

Originally conceived in 2003 and now in revival at the Marsh to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, Executive Order 9066 tiptoes softly behind other more ostentatious examples of the genre recently seen on Bay Area stages. These include Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's heavy-handed documentary-style treatise on the plight of detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (at Brava Theater Center in April) and Christine Evans' Slow Falling Bird, an overwrought, magical realism-infused take on daily life at Australia's Woomera Immigration Detention Center, which recently received its world premiere in a production by Crowded Fire Theater Company. That's not to say that these other shows aren't powerful exposés of prison camp politics. It's just that what they convey through elaborate staging, large casts of characters, and lengthy, polemical texts, Executive Order 9066 manages to do with a handful of otherwise unremarkable inanimate items dancing silently on the surface of a long rectangular table.

Set in the early 1940s, the production tells the story of a Japanese family (a mother and her two young sons) sent from their home in California to Topaz War Relocation Center, a detention camp for Japanese prisoners in Millard County, Utah, 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. Topaz was one of 10 internment camps to which approximately 120,000 ethnic Japanese and people of Japanese descent living mostly on the U.S. West Coast were sent in the backlash following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942. This action was taken under an edict of President Franklin D. Roosevelt known as Executive Order 9066.

Like all of Lunatique Fantastique's work, this wildly imaginative piece of found-object puppet theater pares actions and emotions down to their bare essentials. A battered suitcase takes on multiple roles in the piece, serving at once as a repository for the evicted family's belongings, the vehicle that transports them to Topaz, and, in broader terms, as a metaphor for displacement. In the hands of the company's team of dexterous, black-hooded object puppeteers, three napkins -- two topped with teacups and a third with a bamboo-handled teapot -- are all it takes to bring the sons and their kimono-wearing mother to life. Armed with a couple of chopsticks, the high-spirited youngsters divide their time between playing baseball and re-enacting fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style films, their little napkin legs running in thin air like samurai of the silver screen. Meanwhile, their mother catches up on the latest news and gossip with a neighbor, a local "all-American" football mom conjured into existence with the aid of another napkin (this time decorated with blue and white checks like a gingham apron), a white teapot, and a pair of wooden spoon arms.

Found-object puppet theater is neither the most obvious nor the easiest choice of medium through which to tell this difficult, poignant story. At times, the action can be tricky to follow without prior background knowledge. A scene in which we see one of the sons signing a document, for instance, makes little sense unless you happen to know about the "loyalty questionnaire," a registration survey sent around the prison camps during the war demanding that Japanese prisoners declare full allegiance to the U.S. -- including, for males over the age of 17, recruitment to the U.S. Army. So while solving the intricate visual puzzles presented to us in the play can be a very satisfying experience, a failure to grasp key moments can interfere with the audience's enjoyment of the show.

One could also argue that while the bare-bones approach to storytelling works beautifully for the company's more lighthearted, whimsical shows like The Wrapping Paper Caper and Cirque du Celery, which place the power of the imagination at a premium, the particular eccentricities of the medium cannot help but oversimplify these key events in U.S. history by inadequately tackling, for example, the thorny political motivations behind the government's decision to build the camps. But to the extent that Executive Order 9066 isn't so much a political pamphlet in dramatic form as it is a spiraling meditation on the pointless loss of innocent lives at a time of national pressure, the production is deeply haunting. It is also, in places, very funny. Just as the company's 2001 work, Snake in the Basement: The Prosecution of Rev. Bill Pruitt, derived much of its bitter strength from the gap between the playful "innocence" of the puppetry and the brutal story about a child molester, so much of Executive Order 9066's polemical power lies in the chasm between the dark subject and the playful energy of the object-theater style -- a style which brings to mind the solemnity of a Japanese tea ceremony and the delicate beauty and cheeky sense of humor of the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki.

In some ways, Lunatique Fantastique's method is perfectly suited to the telling of this tale inasmuch as the traditional Japanese puppet theater form, bunraku-style puppetry, shares several key stylistic elements with Lunatique Fantastique. Although bunraku uses elaborate, lifelike marionettes each about three or four feet high, the puppets, like the household object creations in Lunatique's shows, are manipulated by several puppeteers. And as in Executive Order 9066 and its predecessors, the handlers in bunraku wear black gowns and hoods and do not speak. (The puppeteers in Lunatique shows occasionally make sounds, but they don't usually use real words.)

The morphing of objects in and out of recognizable forms, the meticulousness of the choreography, the meaning imbued by even the subtlest gesture, and the sense of fun, even in spite of the dark subject matter, all make for mesmerizing viewing. Perhaps the Tony Award Committee should introduce a new category for "Best Performance by an Inanimate Household Object" in 2006. It would be a tight contest between the gingham napkin and the suitcase, though.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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