Japanese folk tales (monogatari) frequently have a spareness to them, as if they’ve been rubbed smooth over the years by re-telling. The story may travel from village to court, and fire demons may suddenly appear, but the nature of the characters is kept minimal, their motives are made plain. They’re tagged the ‘wise poet’ or the ‘greedy monkey,’ little more. And while they may change, those changes are determined by events, not inner drives.
In other words, the stories are plot-driven, not psychology-driven. They present us an apparently ordinary landscape where ghosts are taken for granted, even as the characters are moral outlines — who somehow have dream-like, resonant meanings.
Susan Felder’s ‘Temple Spirit’ is inspired by such simple-seeming tales — bringing together a couple of classics as well as the great historical legend of Chushingura or the 47 Ronin. Echo Theatre has not merely premiered the play, the company has gone to the trouble of finding and refurbishing an old, out-of-the-way stage — the Show Place Theatre in the Creative Arts Building in Fair Park. During the State Fair, it’s a home for puppet shows — just next to the quilt displays and cooking demos.
What’s more, ‘Temple Spirit’ is staged by Jeffrey Schmidt, one of our busiest, more resourceful designer-directors: He brought the play about a haunted temple to Echo’s attention. And his temple set design, the gloomy lighting (Robert McVay) and the costumes (Melissa Perkins) — together, these shape one of Echo’s more striking productions.
But there are also masks, shadow puppets, silk-rope dancing, bamboo flute music — the whole overloaded sampan of Orientalist paraphernalia. The aim is an atmosphere of far-away wonder and artful yet earnest spookiness. But the production elements often feel unnecessary — so much paper-lantern decoration. The shadow puppets, for instance, are used mostly for literal-minded illustration. A crane is mentioned, and we promptly see a shadow puppet of a crane. So that’s what the bird looks like. Whatever evocative Japonisme this might add (cue the bamboo flutes), it does little to advance or deepen the story.
So what we encounter in ‘Temple Spirit’ is muddle and over-produced artifice. Given the amount of talent and effort involved, simpler would definitely have been better, even a stark, dark simplicity. That’s partly because it might counter Felder’s script, which abandons the straight-ahead narrative of a folk tale for a roundelay of stories-within-stories. The basic set-up is borrowed from the 18th-century tale, ‘A Haunted Temple in Inaba Province.‘ A samurai-turned-priest (Anthony Ramirez, getting a sword-slinging workout) is determined to redeem an abandoned temple by spending the night in it and cleansing it of the demons infesting the place. The surly, local villagers could use the spiritual aid both temple and priest. But they’re not about to help him — other priests have tried before and they’ve all died, so why bother?
The vigil is strenuous, it turns out, because the priest must endure not only the demons’ physical assaults but their life stories as well. Eventually, it becomes clear that restoring the old temple will require his own redemption. It seems the priest may have been a ronin who ran away rather than die loyally with his fellow 47 samurai heroes.
The tales the demons tell start off well enough with a fisherman (Alexander Ferguson) and a ‘flute girl’ (Lorena Davey) relating a variation of ‘The Grateful Crane.’ Davey’s mournful voice goes far in conveying the story’s theme of love as unrequited self-sacrifice. But by the end of the evening, after the priest has heard the tale of the Firefly Queen (Nicole Berastequi) and that of a young female banshee trapped in a well (Danielle Pickard), just what he should take away from all the frustration and betrayal is not clear. Perhaps they’re a collective portrait of human misery, a kind of recruitment pitch by the demons: Look on these lives, priest, as well as your own, and despair. Mostly, the audience despairs that some clarity will arrive.
One example must suffice to indicate the puzzlements in Felder’s writing. At one of the play’s few and long-awaited moments of suspense, our priest has a knife held to his throat. His death is imminent — says the gloating demon Nezumi (in Ian Ferguson’s impressive, Kelsey Grammar-ish tones). But the good priest replies, no, I defeated you, I showed you mercy, I spared your life. So you owe me a life.
Freeze. The two characters now hold their positions, the knife remains where it is. And they deliver four or five variations of this same exchange (you’re going to die – no, I was merciful) — to no apparent point. The suspense is not heightened, the narrative doesn’t advance, details are not added, the action just seems stuck on ‘repeat.’
Ramirez has most often been a comic character actor — with his booming voice, expressive face and boundless energy. Playing an action-hero priest is a welcome stretch, made all the more credible by the fact that his bald dome makes Ramirez resemble a younger Bruce Willis. In Felder’s fashion, however, the whole question of whether the priest is a cowardly survivor of the famous 47 Ronin is brought up, used by the demons to taunt him and then more or less dropped.
So Ramirez doesn’t have much opportunity to explore the character of a veteran warrior-turned-priest haunted by his failure to live up to his samurai code. (In action-movie terms, he’s the mysterious, troubled stranger who comes to town, re-discovers his fighting skills and sets things right.) Too bad. In wrestling with whether he is a priest or a samurai, Ramirez is appealingly affable — especially in his interactions with a helpful young lad (Brittney Dubose).
But it wouldn’t matter much if Ramirez did convey a truly compelling, conflicted character. At the end of ‘Temple Spirit,’ his priest sums up what he’s learned from all these tales, all this struggle. To truly understand the light, he informs the lad, one must sit in the darkness.
Really? If we’re going for ersatz Zen sayings, how about “Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper”?
Sadly, when ‘Temple Spirit’ does, at last, aim for the simple, it nails the simplistic.