It’s hard to imagine that a teapot and two cups could tell a complex, neglected story from World War II, but in the hands of Liebe Wetzel’s company Lunatique Fantastique, a tea set gets a star turn. Two tea sets, really: one Japanese, one European. And some tin cans. And newspapers, and sticks, and old shoes, and a metal cafeteria tray, the kind with dividers to keep the portions separate. These aren’t your usual puppets; no glitter, no jointed mouths or cunning little fabric costumes. Nothing is even hotglued together.
Such is the magic of Wetzel’s work, which she doesn’t call puppeteering but “object manipulation.” Her characters, vehicles, and sets are constructed on the fly by half a dozen black-clad performers who arrange objects into various configurations, leaving plenty of spaces for the audience’s imagination to fill in. Working in near-silence, the manipulators tell goofy lightweight stories, such as the annual variations of the holiday show the Wrapping Paper Caper, or intense, adult ones, such as Wetzel’s father’s battle with polio, or a meditation on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Executive Order 9066 falls squarely into the second category, and goes farther. The story of a Japanese-American family forced into a Utah internment camp, 9066 asks more of its audience’s imagination than any of the company’s shows to date. Not only must we fill in the characters and what befalls them — two brothers having an adorable Crouching Tiger-style fight, a proud, grieving mother trying to hold her family together, a son gone off to war — but we’re tested on our knowledge of history as well. President Roosevelt, suggsted by a tiny wheelchair and a hat, plays cards with people’s lives, and a mushroom cloud blooms over Hiroshima.
Visually, it’s beautiful — a samurai turns into a ship, and then a home, in a fluid transition near the beginning. The bombing of Hiroshima, silently acted out with newspaper, is stunning. And there is some wonderful, challenging ambiguity. When the mother sells off family possessions before the family is taken away to the camp, three “buyers” appear, crablike and jingling change, vaguely threatening and avaricious. They’re followed by a neighbor woman who has shunned the family; she buys the prized swords the boys had been playing with in the first scene. It’s not clear whether she is buying them simply because she can and wants to, or whether she is taking them to keep them safe for the family, and leaving money to keep up appearances. That uncertainty is part of what elevates this production, along with the interactions between the characters, especially the two brothers.
Lunatique Fantastique debuted this piece two years ago at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, where it was limited to an hour. It feels longer now than it did then, and it’s hard to say whether that’s because it is a little longer, or because the cast of manipulators has turned over and these folks are moving at a different pace. Perhaps it’s simply a different experience on the second viewing, when there aren’t as many surprises.
Wetzel has clearly thought out her images (the difference between Japanese and European tea sets is an important one), but the reliance on symbolism makes the show almost too elegant and abstract to provoke the gut reaction of some of her other work (Brace Yourself, about polio, was a bona fide three-hanky show, without ever being heavy-handed). 9066 could stand tightening — the section where the family is in the camp feels overlong — or Wetzel could revisit her choice about not integrating music, which might really make this one pop. The Fringe performance seemed more compelling, more visceral; two years later, it’s leisurely and meditative to the point of being difficult to stay with. Still gorgeous, but slow.