While the folks across the street at the new Jungle Theater are scrambling to get Birnam Wood and Dunsinane together for the opening of the Scottish play, playwright Rick Shiomi and his Theatre Mu cohorts are taking a decidedly more relaxed approach to the future. They've gathered in an empty room above a boxing gym, around a glass table littered with Dixie cups and bottles of mineral water and Fruitopia, to take their first look at Shiomi's Tale of the Dancing Crane, one of four new works scheduled to preview at this Wednesday's New Eyes Festival.
"I originally thought of it as a children's tale, but the more I write, the less I think of it that way," explains Shiomi to his cast, most of whom are veterans of past Mu productions. After a few more words of introduction from the author and a cursory review of the company's discrimination and sexual harassment policies (both are frowned upon), scripts are distributed in manila envelopes and highlighters brought to the ready.
Like last season's The Walleye Kid, Tale of the Dancing Crane is an adaptation of an Asian folktale--in this case, an ancient Japanese story of a man who accidentally shoots a crane and is later visited by a beautiful young lady who is actually the bird in disguise. And as with The Walleye Kid, Shiomi has transplanted the story to rural Minnesota. "For me, the ancient Asian fables have always had a distant rural quality," he explains in a break from the reading. "As a writer and an artist, it just makes sense to connect them with the rural Midwest."
Though it's set in Hicksville, The Tale of the Dancing Crane will ultimately include both Japanese taiko drumming and obon dancing. The mix is characteristic of the mélange of movement, masks, and music that has become Theatre Mu's signature style during the last two seasons. "It's an Asian style of theater," explains Shiomi. "We call it transition-of-power theater--changing the Asian community while redefining the larger community's perception of what Asian American means."
Shiomi, who is Theatre Mu's artistic director, has been with the company since it was founded seven years ago. In that time, he's seen the Twin Cities' Asian-American theater scene blossom to include Pangea World Theater, a Hmong theater collective, and a number of dance troupes. Nevertheless, like most small local companies, Theatre Mu struggles to maintain a regular audience.
Along with The Tale of the Dancing Crane, the informal New Eyes Festival reading will include a company-created performance piece called Night Flights, an adaptation of a Tang Dynasty Chinese poem called The Pipa Player, and Tales of the Starfruit Tree, which will ultimately play at Landmark Center's Weyerhaeuser Auditorium in June as part of the Planet Ordway Series. Another adaptation of an Asian fable, The Starfruit Tree will be co-authored by Shiomi and local slam poet Bau Thuc Phi. "The Ordway thing is good exposure for us," says Shiomi. "It's good for the Ordway, too. They're so mainstream and strapped to their financial realities. Planet Ordway is their only link to ethnic communities."
For now, however, the cast is concentrating on getting through the first act of Shiomi's script. Within an hour, they finish reading and begin discussing. There is some dispute over the nuances of one actor's Japanese accent. "There's a true natural accent," Shiomi tells her. "I was watching a Yoko Ono concert once and she was speaking in this high voice to the Japanese musicians and a lower tone to the Americans. It's like she was speaking two languages at once--living in two separate worlds."
Theatre Mu'sNew Eyes Festival runs February 2-7 at the Playwrights' Center; (612) 824-4804.