Theater archives

Tale of a Ruined Face


In 1955, 25 young Japanese women, horribly disfigured when the U.S.A. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, were brought to this country for plastic surgery. In Hiroshima Maiden, Dan Hurlin, with input from historian David Serlin and one of the eponymous “maidens”—peace activist Michiko Yamaoka—has told, exquisitely and movingly, a tale of despair, guilt, and political manipulation set in an America where kids prepared for possible atomic attack by crawling under their desks and covering their eyes. Television was fairly new and one small boy (standing for Hurlin himself) found Lucy Ricardo, in her wacky predicaments, the ultimate horror.

Dawn Akemi Saito, the only speaker, provides the little boy’s memories, TV voices, and other words. The “maiden” herself is silent: a doll in a red dress, manipulated via small sticks and hands-on techniques by three black-clad puppeteers. Hurlin has borrowed from the Japanese Bunraku tradition, but has also transformed it. These puppets are not confined to a small area. Their handlers race them across the stage. In one powerful scene, the heroine, fleeing the flames, leaps from rooftop to rooftop, slipping, hanging on by her little hands, and falling, as peaked-roof shapes on sticks are tilted and swayed and finally come apart. Robert Een’s excellently supportive music (played and sung by the composer, Jeff Berman, and Bill Ruyle) conveys her panicky struggle.

The nine actor-dancer-puppeteers never rest. They manipulate the heroine; the boy; the pilot of the Enola Gay; the minister, Kyoshi Tanimoto, who instigated the trip to the U.S.; Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, who made the arrangements; a photographer; and a State Department official who forbade the publication of pictures showing the maidens’ faces, to avoid arousing pity for former enemies and undermining Cold War patriotism. This raging official and the photographer have a terrific knockdown fight. In Tyler Micoleau’s atmospheric lighting, the humans also “dance” the panels of the set, the rolling tables, signs with pointing arrows, and many ingenious props. They whirl and tip panels to provide aerial views or convey distances traveled. They don white coats and portray doctors. They appear in a shadow play representing Ralph Edwards’s fulsome This Is Your Life installment featuring Tanimoto.

Hurlin’s brilliant use of puppets eerily both distances us from the horror and intensifies it. Classical ukioye portraits of the women held up on sticks develop yawning red cracks. Slipping doll-sized kimonos over one arm (costumes and soft furnishings by Anna Thomford), several puppeteers dance decorously while others supply blank egg-shaped heads, then with chilling formality return to substitute cracked heads or to remove a head entirely. The subtle gestures by the “maiden,” immured in her room out of family shame (their ancestors must have done something wrong!), can break your heart. And so can Hurlin’s delicate and oblique comment on American values of the time. The Hiroshima Maidens did not become postcard beauties; they were simply the lucky few who regained their faces.

Lynn Brown (male) and Lynn-Marie Ruse met as graduate students at NYU a decade ago, and their company, Freefall, has been a hit on dance series and at fringe festivals in the U.S. and Canada. Their choreographic sensibility is intriguingly offbeat and their onstage personas engaging. For instance, The Fifth Story of the Fourth Day tackles an unremittingly gory and tragic tale from The Decameron involving a girl who plants her slain lover’s head in a pot of basil (even that is disposed of by her murderous brothers). Brown and Ruse never resort to pantomime, only subtly emphasizing cruel headholds and gestures that cover the face as they slide and twine over the floor together in eternal companionship.

The cleverly staged program involves no waits. Dances are separated by interludes—for accordionist-composer Edward Ratcliff, dancer Mary Helene Spring, and a low red platform pulled by sixth-grader Henry Brown—in which the elements are reconfigured each time. Spring is always sensual and wonderfully alert to changes of atmosphere, Ratcliff intent on his music.

Homage: A Short Piece About Love is a compelling, saltily ironic take on the long erotic crescendo of Ravel’s Bolero. With their sexy dresses and red high heels, Ruse and Alison Armbruster-Russell might be weary whores or dance hall girls with time on their hands. They lounge tensely about on two low tables, smoking, chewing gum, playing hand games, occasionally beating the rhythm with their feet or humming the relentless melody on kazoos. They eye us, but their movements become almost too big and risky for the contained space, and their rising heat turns out to be not for us but for each other.

Hostage of Love is more perplexing and feels a bit long, although it’s full of compelling ideas. Brown lays out white cardboard posters neatly; Ruse (later joined by him) hurls them around. The blank rectangles clearly convey messages about this intense but botched relationship. Brown watches Ruse (in tight jacket and net skirt) act coy for us. Glamorous Armbruster-Russell patrols their terrain, joins Ruse’s dancing, takes a piece of paper from her pocket and rips it. She could be a relative, a stalker, a bigamist’s other wife. At one point Brown and Ruse open their jackets to show bare chests. Who’s the hostage here?

Related Article:

Dan Hurlin Talks About Hiroshima Maiden” by Elizabeth Zimmer