In ‘Postcards from Ihatov’ at 1st Stage, a dazzling snapshot of a wondrous world

Natsu Onoda Power’s loving tribute to author Kenji Miyazawa is an entrée to his work, not to mention a feast for the eyes.

If the name Kenji Miyazawa means nothing to you, don’t worry, there’s a new play running in Tyson’s designed to change that. Postcards from Ihatov, conceived and directed by Natsu Onoda Power for its world premiere at 1st Stage, is inspired by Miyazawa’s poems and children’s stories, many of which only gained currency in his native Japan after his death in 1933 at just 37. Under Onoda Power’s guidance, Miyazawa’s meditative fantasies have been rendered with an affection that makes this postcard double as a love letter.

Deidra LaWan Starnes, Ethan J. Miller, Matthew Marcus, and Jacob Yeh in ‘Postcards from Ihatov.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The star of the show is Ihatov itself, Miyazawa’s personal literary Wonderland, which he fashioned off his home region of Iwate. For here, Onada Power, doubling as the scenic designer, and her team, but especially lighting designer Minjoo Kim and projections designer Kelly Colburn, have created a marvelous feast for the eyes. Too much detail would tarnish the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself, so let me instead say that everything from painted storyboards to live origami, from choreographed lantern movement to synchronized projections, has been used to craft a realm in which human civilization, enchanted nature, and even celestial passageways intermingle. There’s real technical wizardry on display here, but even the simple touches—the elegant workshop outlined on stage right, for example, or the vertical blinds acting as entry point and projection screen center stage—demonstrate a flair for composition.

TOP: Ethan J. Miller, Pauline Lamb, and Deidra LaWan Starnes; ABOVE: Pauline Lamb, Jacob Yeh, Ethan J. Miller, Matthew Vaky, and Matthew Marcus, in ‘Postcards from Ihatov.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

Inhabiting this space, and ably executing many of its effects live, is an ensemble comprised of Pauline Lamb, Matthew Marcus, Ethan J. Miller, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Jacob Yeh, and Matthew Vaky. Together, they walk the line between Miyazawa’s characters and appreciators, pitching their performances with the straightforwardness and enthusiasm of a children’s story. This presentational approach suits the play, which, in addition to dramatizing Miyazawa’s stories, functions as an entrée to the author himself. Among Marcus’ characters, for example, is a self-proclaimed “Unnamed Author” who meets Vaky’s anthropomorphic cat professor (and sometime-“meow-socologist”), who himself instructs the ensemble and the audience on Miyazawa’s life and work. Over time, the other tales (many of them involving mischievous animals) assert themselves into the sequence, until Miyazawa’s unfinished story “The Galactic Railroad,” about an outcast boy who finds himself traveling an on an interplanar train, emerges as a sort of secondary framework.

If the dramatic structure sounds confusing, that’s because it can be. This is partly by design: the lessons and admissions about Miyazawa’s unfinished work frame the evening as a gateway into Miyazawa’s often surreal oeuvre rather than a singular adaptation. It’s a winning approach, though there are points at which the plotting could better support the creative team’s stunning mise-en-scène. One of the endings offered for “The Galactic Railroad,” for example, is achingly sad, but its heart is sapped by the degree to which the story has become muddled by the evening’s dueling metatheatrical conceits. The staging of other stories, meanwhile, such as a comically prolonged tale about three deer tentatively observing a man’s discarded spa towel, overstay their welcome. It’s fitting, maybe, that the play itself sometimes feels unfinished.

Still, that’s small potatoes when weighed against the array of scenographic methods Onada Power and company deploy, not to mention the varied talents of the cast, who do everything from scoring the piece under Owen Posnett’s supervision to executing the origami themselves. You could almost call it flexing if not for the way it so evocatively captures the power of imagination, especially that of an enigmatic man whose influence far outlived his natural life. As its name suggests, Postcards from Ihatov is a striking snapshot of a wondrous place you will want to visit for yourself.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

Postcards from Ihatov plays through June 24, 2024 (Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm), at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. Tickets are $55 for general admission and are available for purchase by calling the box office at 703-854-1856, going online, or in person before each performance. Limited numbers of seats are offered at $25 and $35 for each performance. Select performances are open-captioned and/or audio-described. Open seating.

The playbill for Postcards from Ihatov is online here.

COVID Safety: 1st Stage is now a mask-optional space with select mask-required performances offered for each show (for Postcards from Ihatov, June 15 at 7:30 pm). See 1st Stage’s complete COVID Safety Information here.

SEE ALSO:
1st Stage to premiere Natsu Onoda Power’s magical ‘Postcards from Ihatov’ (news story, May 7, 2024)

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