Review: The Life of Paper
The Life of Paper
May 23 – June 1, 2008
Roundhouse Performance Centre
The fire alarm bell that cleared the theatre ten minutes into Pangaea Art’s The Life of Paper gave my two daughters unexpected insight into the craft of live theatre. When the audience trooped back into the theatre once the fire department determined that it was a false alarm, the company, rather than continuing where they left off, chose to run the interrupted scene from the beginning. Having seen the same scene run twice, the girls remarked afterwards that they noticed small changes in the way the actors delivered their lines, and even in the words themselves. For children raised on television, where a scene in a film is identical, no matter how many times one replays it (save for the popular blooper reels of course), it was a nice reminder that live theatre is much like live music—it’s never performed the same way twice.
The Life of Paper is an ambitious undertaking by Pangaea Arts, who are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year. Essentially a look at the history of origami, it also worked in the invention of paper by court eunuch Cai Lun in 105 AD in a humorous scene featuring Lenard Stanga as Emperor He, Yayoi Hirano as Duan Cun Ding (Short Inches Person) and He Ling as Cai Lun. Although the scene was illuminating from an educational point of view (forget sliced bread, the invention of paper really did change the world), it was stolen by the physicality of Hirano. Wheeling herself around the stage while kneeling on a low platform, she never ceased to be amusing, even the second time around (see false alarm above).
While the show tended be somewhat disjointed at times and perhaps lacked a certain grace, that can be attributed in part to the ambitious scope of the production (you try fitting several thousand years of history across numerous cultures into an hour and a half using only a cast of five!), and perhaps to the fact that it was opening night. Then there’s the inalterable reality that paper, in and of itself, is not an inherently sexy or even dramatic subject matter, no matter how you fold it. Still, what the opening night show may have lacked in cohesion, it more than made up for in inventiveness, playfulness and charm. It also, to its credit, didn’t take itself too seriously. Producer and performer Lenard Stanga can take a lot of credit for the energy he brought to the proceedings, his larger-than-life stage presence allowing him to pull off the roles of Chinese Emperor, bumbling professor and German kindergarten teacher with an appealing zest that carried the rest of the cast along with him.
But while Stanga provided much of the manic energy, the rest of the cast more than held their own, particularly Hirano and He, who had the more demanding roles. Without the luxury of a large cast, the five performers each had to wear numerous (paper) hats, playing multiple roles and even genders. He, in her first role outside the Sichuan opera tradition in which she is trained, has a stage presence and dignity that transcends genres. Hirano, director of her own theatre company—YAYOI Movement Theatre—also carries with her the weight of experience. In addition to acting and singing (in both English and Japanese), she executed some difficult Japanese magic tricks with great aplomb, all while wearing a paper kimono and a paper wig.
The other star of the show was, of course, paper, which was used to build the entire set, props and costumes (except for the early Chinese scenes, which of course took place before the invention of paper). The majority of the paper work was the creation of local origami wunderkind Joseph Wu and was wonderfully inventive, ranging in size from eyeglasses and small puppets to a large tree, the Eiffel Tower and a life-sized dragon. The exception was the marvellous costumes, also made of paper, designed by Margaret McKea*. One of my favourite vignettes was a retelling of the famous Japanese folk tale, The Crane Wife, using puppets made entirely of paper.
Music and sound effects were provided by the three musicians of the Orchid Ensemble, who managed to parlay their array of (mostly) eastern instruments into a wide variety of music, sounds and textures that complimented the action on stage without being obtrusive.
All in all it was a charming and illuminating evening, suitable for children and adults alike and everyone left the theatre smiling.
Japanese Canadian National Museum presents
The Life of Paper
An interactive exhibition of origami featuring the work of world-renowned origami artist Joseph Wu.
June14 – August 5, 2008
Reception, Saturday, June 21, 2-4pm, all ages are welcome.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604.777.7000 ext.109
*According to Heidi Specht, Director and Lead Writer of The Life of Paper, the technique for treating the kozo shoji paper is to apply Japanese konnyaku starch and then crinkle and scrunch the paper as you work the konnyaku in. The paper was then coated with acrylic paint. It was a very labour-intensive process.