Moments of brilliance abound in Night Parade, the latest offering from Pork Filled Productions and REBATEnsemble, but the play suffers from a convoluted storyline. Though it stands out for its engaging stagecraft and costuming, Night Parade simply has too many ideas.
After arriving at an undisclosed location, the audience is ushered into a cramped lobby, where tea is served and Japanese music sets an ominous tone. Posters on the minimal wall space bear information pertaining to such Japanese folktales as the “Nine-Tailed Fox,” “The Tale of the Shutan Doji,” and the play’s primary inspiration, “The Night Parade of a Hundred Demons,” an ancient legend surrounding the procession of supernatural creatures. Viewers of this parade perish upon sight. Then, we are led into an immersive gallery space, displaying the works of tragic, deceased, and fictitious Japanese artist Shunkuno Arashi (an excellent Aimee Decker). The gallery is run by the tightly wound curator Herald Stass (Andrew Forrest), an exploitative art-hound with skeletons in his closet. He is accompanied by his assistant (Buddy Todd), who is tasked with the tiresome comic gag of handing out tiny pencils to the audience, and the mysterious Nurari (Season Qiu), a sharply dressed man who claims to have known Arashi.
Moments from Arashi’s short and catastrophic life are performed by an enigmatic theatre troupe, but the lines between performance and reality begin to blur as demons from Japanese folklore begin to unexpectedly appear. From the start, it is clear that director Tom Dang has put a great deal of time and energy into the intricate staging, which includes moving set pieces, projection, and kabuki-like choreographed movement between Arashi and her demons. The script (co-written by Dang and newcomer Kendall Uyeji), however, feels uneven and overpopulated with clichés. Arashi’s emotionally distant father (Van Lang Pham) has an affair and her vengeful mother (Eloisa Cardona) commits suicide. Her experiences in therapy don’t fare any better, as the shrink (Frank Sun) is an exasperated drinker who spouts “how does that make you feel” jargon.
Night Parade by Pork Filled Productions and REBATEnsemble. Photo by Tom Dang.
Many of these scenes feel contrived, and even when the play-within-a-play gives way to meta-chaos, the dialogue still seem somewhat manufactured. A scene in which Arashi attempts to pursue a career in avant-garde theatre comes across as an improv sketch and seems ill-conceived, complete with jokes about juice cleanses and selfies (particularly confusing considering this scene is supposed to take place in the 80s). Perhaps these spastics shift in tone are rooted in the collaboration between Uyeji and Dang, or maybe the concept is a bit too ambitious to be carried out successfully. Amidst all this, Decker manages to give a lively and emotionally-charged performance. She handles Arashi’s mental deterioration with tact, while adding a healthy dose of humor and pathos. As Arashi’s insecurities and inner-torment manifest into Japanese demons before our eyes, Decker never loses sight of her character.
Cardona stumbled on a few of her lines as Arashi’s mother, but redeemed herself with a hell-bent fury that was equal parts Joan Crawford and Michelle Yeoh. Forrest started off strong—he was thoroughly believable while clucking about the optics of bidding and pricing. He would be right at home in any Seattle gallery. But he turned rather hollow when tasked with unraveling before the audience. When a climactic twist is revealed by his character, his emotions didn't elicit the intended shock.
Despite these shortcomings, the sheer amount of spectacle and creativity Night Parade has to offer is a testament to the vitality of fringe theatre. It should be said that the actors also serve as stagehands, and their active role in the technical movement of the show is pivotal to the “human as machine” motif that recurs throughout the piece (obtuse cogs move sporadically and loom over a corner of the gallery space). Costume designer Natalie Shih has created a bevy of colorful, craft-store contraptions that cleverly pay homage to the folklore that seeps into Arashi’s inner-torment and eventually takes hold of the stage.
While many productions reduce their minority performers to the ensemble, it is refreshing to see a largely Asian-American cast steer a new work. And though Night Parade may falter, it should serve as a roadmap for theatre companies big and small to utilize their resources and make something truly original. If only this parade had a better grasp of its demons.
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