Playwright/director Lisa Matsumoto and Janel Parrish add golden entries to their resumes with the successful opening of Matsumoto's "On Dragonfly Wings" at Leeward Community College Theater. Anyone who enjoys children's theater will find this colorful production well worth a trek from the most distant corners of Oahu.
Wings soars visually
By John Berger
This is a major creative step forward for Matsumoto, who has enjoyed 10 years of success here by taking characters from familiar European-American fairy tales, scrambling the adventures in the style of "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "translating" the tales into local pidgin. "On Dragonfly Wings" is her first major standard English production and has all the color and familiar magic of her previous hits.
Marvelous work by three members of Matsumoto's 'Ohi'a Productions ohana -- Hugh Hanson (costume design), Stephen Crowell (props design) and Michael Furuya (puppet design) -- make this her most visually impressive production as well. A larger-than-life Crowned Crane is but one of the amazing denizens of the bold new world here. Joseph Dodd and Wayne Kischer share credit for a beautiful multilevel pond/jungle environment that includes a functional waterfall. Several of the costumes need more details to establish the critters' identities -- the dart frogs and chameleons in particular -- but overall, "On Dragonfly Wings" is one great visual experience.
The production is also a great showcase for Parrish. Perfect in her first local lead role, the preteen's remarkable performance as plucky protagonist Wendy Waterbug leaves no doubt that she is one of the most promising young actresses in local theater. She interprets each shifting facet of the character with a skill beyond her years, sings beautifully and dances in character even when the script requires her to be awkward -- a challenge for anyone with dance training.
The story comes with an inherent and unavoidable weakness, and the music is routine, but those things will likely be overlooked by the preteens who are the intended audience.
The story is built on mixed metaphors.
Wendy is a spunky and imaginative young water bug who lives with her family in Crystal Pond. She's a dreamer and an optimist who believes that everyone and anyone can make a difference.
Wendy tries and fails to organize the Crystal Pond ballet troupe, but bounces back a day later and gets everyone involved in a big parade.
Suddenly Wendy doesn't feel well. Her father, Wallace Waterbug (Devon Nekoba), realizes that she is about to experience "The Change." Soon Wendy will have to leave her family and pond friends and go to a "higher place."
By this time the audience knows that Wendy's real parents are a pair of regal dragonflies (Leonard Piggee and Tricia Marciel) who dropped her into Crystal Pond to be raised by the other water bugs until she experiences "The Change" and is able to live with them "above the pond."
It's here that "On Dragonfly Wings" starts tripping over several awkward juxtapositions of theme, metaphor and continuity. The play is based on Matsumoto's book "Wailana the Waterbug," which was inspired by the life and legacy of Alana Dung, who succumbed to leukemia at age 3 yet managed to generate a tremendous outpouring of support from the local community.
That said, using the water bug/dragonfly equivalent of puberty as a metaphor for death juxtaposes two very different experiences. The onset of puberty can certainly be difficult and unpleasant, but it isn't the same as dying.
Back in Crystal Pond it also goes without comment that water bugs experience "The Change" and go from the pond to a "higher place," but some of the other pond folk -- the fish and shrimp, for example -- are doomed to live out their entire existence in the pond and have no hope of ever experiencing the beauty of the "higher world" where dragonflies fly. What kind of message does that send to a child? That some kids are just born special and able to achieve what is impossible for the others?
COMPOSER Roslyn Catracchia deserves an A for effort, but most of these songs are in the expository style of Matsumoto's previous shows. None is immediately memorable.
But kids for whom death and puberty alike are but abstractions will love almost every moment of this colorful celebration of life. Older kids can ponder the deeper issues with their parents.
On the surface, comic characters abound, and pride of place goes to Dion Donahue and Stephanie Sanchez, the duo who essentially stole the show two years straight when Diamond Head Theatre staged Matsumoto's "The Princess and the Iso Peanut." Donahue and Sanchez do superb work here in the two broadest and most demanding comic roles. Donahue devours the scenery as arrogant Germanic ballet master Gunter Tadpole. Sanchez matches him bite for bite as Gunter's bombastic wife. The couple was an instant hit with the opening-night crowd.
Versatile Joe Abraham (Mayor Clovis Crayfish) displays his range, this time with a solid comic performance as an easily flustered crustacean. Eddie Gudoy contributes a quiet charm in Act I as Sydney Snail, Zan De Peralta Shinmoto is a most outspoken member of a school of fish, and Michael Ng is another instant kids' favorite playing martial arts instructor Master Mantis in Act II.
And then there's John Byran as Benjamin Basilisk, a large lizard with a Jamaican accent. Bryan owned the crowd as soon as he opened his mouth.
Joseph Morales adds a strong performance as a romantic teenage water bug in Act I and is even better when he becomes Parrish's leading man in Act II.
Andrew Sakaguchi and Kristin Ing add formal grace and stage presence playing the Tadpole Ballet's Russian principals, Paul E. Wogski and his wife, Paulina. Sakaguchi gets to stretch as a comic actor when Paulina catches Paul E. dancing with a water bug.
The versatile Sakaguchi shares credit with Ka'ohi Yojo for the overall choreography. "To Dance ... the Dance!" is their comic masterpiece as the pond folk try to dance with the Tadpole Ballet and fail with hilarious results.
The comic detail work in this number makes it worth seeing twice. "Dance of the Fireflies" is performed in darkness and stands as the most beautiful and poignant number.
The zest and graceful vitality of Chrissy Naruo (Daisy Damselfly) makes "Spread Your Wings" another of the brightest dance numbers.
Kids between 5 and 12 will surely love Matsumoto's impressive theatrical milestone.
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