It’s not summer yet (as the stupid weather of the past few days has pointedly reminded us) but Clubbed Thumb is getting a jump on the season and its glut of festivals by staging its own while there’s a relative lull. On Sunday, Gothamist attended the opening of the company’s tenth Summerworks festival, which features three plays, and if 100 Aspects of the Moon was any indication, this anniversary year is one you definitely shouldn’t miss. Clubbed Thumb also has an annual “boot camp” in which it workshops new plays, and this first play of the three in Summerworks 2005 was boot-camped last November.
Maybe playwright Ethan Lipton already had his creation in good shape beforehand, but the quality of 100 Aspects of the Moon certainly speaks well for the boot camps and for Clubbed Thumb in general. Their mission statement says they aim to produce “funny, strange, and provocative new plays,” and 100 Aspects is all three, as well as being highly enjoyable.
With a sparse set and actors portraying multiple characters over the course of 90 minutes, the play brings to life 11 of the 100 prints in a series by Japanese wood-block printmaker Yoshitoshi. Lipton clearly has a fantastic imagination to be able to draw as much as he has from these; like much traditional Japanese art, a lot is left out of the picture and just hinted at in Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece, which he produced between 1885-1892.
A few of the tableaux in Lipton’s live version are like this: a woman sings softly by the light of the moon, a regally robed man circles the stage as servants shower some sort of petals or dust on him. There are also stories told in a single scene, like that of the hilariously hyperactive little boy Mitchi (Joanna Adler, who has his energy pitch-perfect) whose parents have competing visions for his future. Others more strongly resemble fables or myths, and are acted out in bits throughout the show. Probably the best is the one that provides the beginning and ending, in which Hou Yi (the terrifically funny Matthew Maher) rescues the moon and receives an elixir for eternal life, only to have the elixir snatched from him by his wife, Chang E. (Kate Hampton) who is later turned into a frog. Another well-executed recurring piece has a haughty princess (Joanna Adler again) playing hard-to-get with a captain (Tim Kang, the only Asian actor in the bunch).
Almost anyone would have had to take a lot of liberties with Yoshitoshi’s 100 Aspects to put it on stage, and Lipton’s version, with mostly white actors wearing modern clothes and using American slang and obscenities, does so unapologetically, and successfully. Any cognitive dissonance you might experience in seeing classical Japanese themes brought to life by off-off-Broadway performers is outweighed by the comedy that results, and by the many oddly beautiful moments that show up throughout its length.
Summerworks 2005 continues for three weeks, with 100 Aspects being followed by Honour Kane’s Madame Killer and then Ann Marie Healy’s Dearest Eugenia Haggis, which both also appear to be based in the 19th century but, if 100 Aspects is representative, will be anything but stiff and Victorian. In addition this week and the last week of the festival Clubbed Thumb hosts free readings of two plays in its current boot camp: Anna Ziegler’s Everything You Have (May 11) and iggy woo, by Alice Tuan (May 25).
Details: Summerworks is at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St. All shows are at 8pm. 100 Aspects shows through May 14, except for May 11; Madame Killer will show from May 15-21, except for May 18; and Dearest Eugenia Haggis will show from May 22-28, except for May 25.