Magic abounds through tales of the supernatural presented with beautifully detailed miniature sets, extraordinary effects, and ingenious artistry. Created by Japanese master puppeteer Koryū Nishikawa V and American puppet artist Tom Lee, a new stage work uses bunraku-inspired puppets, video projection, and live music to explore the creative process of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, one of Japan’s leading literary figures.
The Moss Arts Center presents three performances of “Akutagawa” on Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The performances will be held in the center’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, located within the Street and Davis Performance Hall at 190 Alumni Mall.
Considered the father of the Japanese short story, author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is most widely known in the West through Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film, “Rashōmon,” based on the author’s work “In the Bamboo Grove.” This stage production of “Akutagawa” is an international theatrical collaboration showcasing the limitless storytelling possibilities of puppetry. Featuring narration in English, the production reimagines and excerpts several of Akutagawa’s best-known works, offering an intimate window into the mind of an immensely talented, complicated artist who took his own life at the age of 35. (Please be advised that this performance contains a reference to suicide.)
The production features kuruma ningyō, a unique and vibrant puppetry tradition created by Koryū Nishikawa I in Japan 170 years ago. While bunraku puppetry requires three puppeteers to manipulate one puppet, kuruma ningyō requires only one. The style gets its name because it involves a puppeteer sitting on a “kuruma” (cart) and manipulating the “ningyō” (puppet).
Master puppeteer Koryū Nishikawa V is the fifth-generation master of Hachiōji Kuruma Ningyō. He received training in cart puppetry from his father, Koryū Nishikawa IV, and later in bunraku-style puppetry at the National Bunraku Theater. He is one of a small number of puppeteers who manipulates both types of puppets.
Tom Lee is an Asian American designer, director, and puppet artist who has performed on Broadway in “War Horse” and at the Metropolitan Opera in “Madama Butterfly,” in addition to creating critically acclaimed original work fusing technology and contemporary puppetry techniques.
Nishikawa V and Lee are co-creators of “Akutagawa” and will both perform as puppeteers. Music for the production is composed and performed live by Yukio Tsuji, a resident composer of La MaMa Experimental Theater known for his work on Al Pacino’s “Salome,” and in the original Broadway production of Steven Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.”
Recommended for ages 14 and up, this engagement of “Akutagawa” is made possible in part through the ArtsCONNECT program of Mid Atlantic Arts with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Join a discussion with co-creators Nishikawa V and Lee as they delve into their long collaborative relationship and the development of “Akutagawa” on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 6 p.m. in the Moss Arts Center’s Cube. The event is free and is open to the public, but registration is required.
Virginia Tech students in the Japanese House of the Mozaiko international living-learning community will learn about the history and contemporary practice of kuruma ningyō puppetry from the creators of “Akutagawa.”
Nishikawa V will lead a lecture-demonstration for a Japanese course in Virginia Tech’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, as well as a workshop on kuruma ningyō puppetry for students at Christiansburg Middle School.
Tickets for the performance are $30 for general admission and $10 for students and youth 18 and under. Tickets can be purchased online; at the Moss Arts Center’s box office from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday; or by calling 540-231-5300 during box office hours.
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