“This is what I should have been doing all along,” says Dan Hurlin about Hiroshima Maiden, the first of his theater pieces in which he does not actually appear. “I’m such a nervous person. I hated performing. I always thought that at any minute the bottom would fall out.”
At 48, Hurlin still revels in playing with toys. He got into puppetry as a young man because he had big ideas for plays and couldn’t afford to pay actors. This week at St. Ann’s Warehouse, he unveils his new production, which deals in difficult, controversial, politically resonant subject matter—the “collateral damage” of war, the management of news, the suppression of evidence of atrocities, and, in the case of the severely disfigured, the confusion of medical intervention with “cosmetic surgery.” His simple graphic concepts, meticulously rendered, break the heart.
“This is huge, mammoth, intimidating,” he says. Based on events that followed the A-bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the piece uses 10 puppeteers who manipulate figures nearly four feet high—victims of the bombing, the pilot of the Enola Gay, bureaucrats, photographers. There are also three musicians and a narrator. Framing the story, set in the mid ’50s, is a fictionalized autobiography in which a young man finds himself flipping TV channels between I Love Lucy and This Is Your Life.
Performed in the style of Japanese Bunraku, Hiroshima Maiden is nevertheless “an American story,” says Hurlin. He’s been wrapped up in the material for three years, raising money, building puppets and miniature scenic effects, lining up rehearsal space. The show’s budget is almost four times that of his largest previous endeavor. Given the sheer quantity of stuff, the fact that St. Ann’s gave him the use of the warehouse for more than a month, and that Sarah Lawrence College (from which he graduated in 1979, and where he’s been teaching for more than a decade) let him use a theater free of charge for a couple of weeks, has been a blessing.
“What a thrill to see it, finally, outside of my head,” he exclaims as we tour the miniature Eames furniture and screens, the “maidens” whose faces crumple at the delicate pull of a cord, and a crawling ant, which Hurlin swears is visible from high up in the raked, 300-seat theater. There are tiny renditions of Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that wreaked havoc on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
His cast includes several dancers, among them his companion, Kazu Nakamura, who proved useful as a translator during research trips to Japan. He felt it important to recruit a mix of Asians, Asian Americans, and Caucasians. Three of his performers—Lake Simons, Matt Acheson, and Chris Green—have worked with puppeteer Basil Twist. “The dancers”—Nami Yamamoto, Deana Headley, and Nakamura—”had never held a puppet in their hands before. I actually think dance and puppetry are the same thing—both media use movement as a primary means of communication.”
As much a visual artist as a man of the theater, Hurlin stayed with puppetry because he found that “anthropomorphizing objects became a convenient shorthand.” Puppets allow Hurlin to conjure effects that would be impossible using human beings. “We did the bombing scene this morning,” he says after a rehearsal. “Michiko [one of the ‘maidens’ brought to the U.S. for surgery to repair facial disfigurement after the attacks] is really brutalized by those puppeteers. You’d never be able to do it with live actors. The whole time she’s trying to escape. It’s much more interesting with a puppet. Your heart goes out to her because she’s so small. The audience is so busy giving her life that we feel kind of protective of her. Puppets are a better mirror; they show us ourselves more clearly. The puppet doesn’t change its facial expression. People fill in the blanks, meeting her halfway. She seems expressive, but it’s all being done in the audience’s mind.”
Hiroshima Maiden runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through February 1.
Deborah Jowitt’s review of Hiroshima Maiden