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Theater Review: The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks


Published July 19, 2006 at 2:18 p.m.

A well-told children's story moves like a duck across a pond. It glides effortlessly on the surface, taking a zig here and a zag there as the plot unfolds. But underneath the swift-flowing storyline, the waters often seethe with timeless, titanic struggles and moral dilemmas: the powerful versus the powerless; man or nature in jeopardy; love won and lost. Kiddie attention spans require that a tale quack along quickly, but the grown-ups doing bedtime reading duty want to be drawn in as well.

In fact, much entertainment that's ostensibly for adults can be reduced to its fairy-tale essence. Try to summarize the last movie you saw this way: Once upon a time, there was a cheeky band of curiously handsome pirates...

If comic books and theme-park rides can become major motion pictures, why not take a children's book and make it into a play? Award-winning, Barre-based author Katherine Paterson has adapted four of her popular stories for the stage. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks is a touching fable about love, power and beauty set in Japan. At Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater, director Kathleen Keenan has mounted a visually arresting production of Paterson's emotionally engaging, family-friendly play.

Paterson adapted the story in collaboration with Stephanie Tolan and Steve Liebman, the same team that brought her novel Bridge to Terabithia to the stage in 1992. The script of Ducks, co-authored with Tolan, draws on the conventions of traditional Japanese Noh theater, such as stock characters and alternating passages of poetry and slapstick. A handful of songs by Liebman adds a contemporary Broadway touch, although the show is a play with music and not a full-fledged musical. The original book's gorgeous illustrations (by Leo and Diane Dillon) inspired elements of the script, as well as Lost Nation's well-executed production design.

Keenan has fleshed out The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks with an ambitious assemblage of other cultural elements, including kabuki-style makeup, taiko drumming interludes, folk songs and dancing. Because the script's running time is geared for younger audiences, a 20-minute "prelude concert" of drumming, singing and dancing preceded the play to constitute a full-length evening of entertainment.

Two pairs of lovers -- one human, one waterfowl -- face peril because a willful Lord rules cruelly and capriciously. While walking in the countryside, the Lord spots a vibrantly plumed mandarin Drake, and orders his samurai Shozo to capture it for his collection of pretty treasures. Shozo protests, "The Drake is a wild spirit. Surely he will die in captivity."

"I am the lord of the district," the tyrant thunders. "He would not dare!" But the male duck withers in his bamboo cage, despite the secret efforts of the kitchen maid, Yasuko, to nurture him with delicacies. Meanwhile, back at the nest, the bereft female Duck cries out helplessly, not knowing what has happened to her missing mate.

As the Drake's plumage fades, the Lord angrily relegates the no-longer beautiful bird to the back of the kitchen garden. Knowing that the duck will die if he remains caged, Yasuko releases him. Shozo is deeply moved by her efforts to save the creature he wrongfully imprisoned, and falls in love with her. When the Lord discovers his Drake is gone, he blames both the maid and the samurai. He strips Shozo of his rank, and eventually sentences them both to death by drowning.

The waterfowl have reunited happily. Can they save the servants who saved them? It's a children's story, so don't worry about corpses at curtain time. Ducks in disguise, a deep, dark forest and a farcically incompetent guard ensure a happy ending for man and beast.

Noh, like many ancient styles of stagecraft, is self-consciously theatrical: A troupe of actors overtly presents the audience with their work as entertainers. In The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, the Narrator leads the players by recounting much of the story and often joins in to play a character himself. In this role, Reuben Josephe Tapp had an engaging stage presence, his voice alternately soothing and sonorous to suit the material. His over-the-top portrayal of the hapless guard Taro was a kid-pleasing, comic delight.

The trio of actors in kabuki makeup exploited their parts' caricature-laden possibilities. As the haughty, mood-swinging Lord, Kim Bent used his steeply arched eyebrows to convey dastardly superciliousness, creating an amusing, love-to-hate-him villain. As the Lord's frisky minions, the KoKen, Erica Miethner and Hiroko Sawaki flitted about the stage with mischievous energy.

Haruna Tsuchiya played the maid Yasuko with quiet dignity as she demonstrated her character's struggle between fear and courage. As the samurai Shoko, G. Richard Ames --known to Burlington public-access cable fans as the "Survey Says" announcer -- showed the warrior's dilemma between duty to his Lord and honoring his own code of values. Tsuchiya and Ames played their star-crossed couplehood convincingly.

The pair portraying the mandarin mates faced a unique challenge: roles with little dialogue that also required them to perform while manipulating large puppet versions of their characters. What could have been silly or surreal was deeply touching. The Drake, Joey Morse, was regal even in captivity, and the Duck, Melanie Fields, was ethereal even in distress. Both actors conveyed emotions expressively with their eyes and body language, greatly aided by the simple elegance of Sebastian Ryder's choreography -- movement that flowed organically from character and action.

While the folk music, dancing and drumming enlivened the atmosphere and enriched the story, Liebman's songs did not. Music director Piero Bonamico accompanied ably from an onstage piano, but the songs lacked dramatic impact, and the singers didn't seem entirely comfortable with them. For example, while the tone of Tsuchiya's voice was rich, her pitch often seemed to veer sharp. In general, lyrics weren't as precisely or persuasively articulated as the dialogue, or even the action. Under-rehearsed numbers? Or just not show-stopping material? It was hard to tell.

All the visual elements were striking, however, and executed with polish. Donna Stafford's puppets were gorgeous agglomerations of silk that seemed to embody both fragility and strength. Kevin M. Kelly's handsome scenic design drew from the muted palette of the Dillons' book illustrations. John B. Forbes' lighting enhanced the spare set's effectiveness. The pale background hues allowed Kate Jansyn Thaw's wonderful array of costumes to shine, from the vibrant silks to the earthy cottons.

Color and fabric became part of the storytelling. While rich raiment connoted status, one of the central themes was the disconnect between outward appearance and inner beauty or moral worth. Thus, the Lord's robes were most lavish but cloaked the ugliest heart. Even when the Drake's brilliant coloring dulled in captivity, he remained noble because he loved his plain-plumed mate. When the samurai was stripped of his status-signifying swords, he felt liberated; love mattered more to him than any outward trappings.

Every children's tale has a message or two. Of course, good triumphs over evil and love conquers all. These stock morals are cleverly and charmingly rendered in The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks. More subtle -- and more important, in this era of Botoxed and designer-clad celebrities -- is the message that what matters is on the inside. Plumage fades, but doing the right thing never goes out of style.