Below is a review of Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin.
You know nothing of the pain of the dead. Whose story do you think you’re telling?
Everyone loves a good ghost story, especially during the Halloween season, but how often do we consider the ghost’s story? Every storyteller imbues their tale with their own embellishments, bias, and point of view. At what point can you no longer trust that the telling accurately honors what really happened, what suffering actually took place? What if your story was told by someone who didn’t even know you, translating your raw anguish into digestible entertainment? What if, worse yet, it was told by the one who caused the pain? How might the story sound then?
This question of self-representation, agency, and introspective honesty is the heart of this season’s most visually remarkable, technically complex, and emotionally resonant new work, Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin. Based on a collection of traditional Japanese ghost stories and honed over many years by Rogue Artists Ensemble, with their trademark breathtaking puppetry, mixed media, and cultural inclusivity, and in association with East West Players, Kaidan Project feels like the logical final step for the barrier-pushing theatre company on their way towards earning the chosen nomenclature of their personal brand of live performance: “hyper-theatre.”
Your experience begins by receiving a strange email from the offices of Mori Storage, an old-fashioned personal effects repository that has seen both better and worse days. In the letter, you are notified by the worried staff that their boss and your old friend, Kana Mori, has mysteriously disappeared somewhere in the warehouse after several weeks of increasingly erratic behavior. They hope, due to your personal connection to Kana, that you might be able to discern something that they haven’t. The looming five-story warehouse in downtown Los Angeles looks ancient, run down, and as you enter the loading dock to begin your encounter you find the place in a state of chaos.
Three of Kana’s loyal employees greet you hoping with various degrees of skepticism that your presence will somehow make a difference in bringing their mystery to a happy end. What follows is a small, contained sandbox style preshow where you are permitted to explore the room at will and engage the three members of the Mori Storage crew as much or as little as you wish. Each of them has their own take on what happened to Kana and their own level of approval at your presence there. Each performer gives an engaging comic turn as they provide pieces of backstory and context that will aid in your understanding of the larger plot once the show begins, including a highly significant revelation about the impact of the Japanese Internment on Kana’s family, their neighborhood, and the current contents of the storage lockers.
The technical achievements of the night begin here with some of the usual haunted house fare, but with a greater emotional heft as it underscores the story already beginning to unfold. Japanese music emanating from a PA speaker wafts through the air, interrupted by flickering lights and bursts of static that could be mistaken for the faraway cries of a soul in distress. The employees pause at each of these instances, some calling out, hoping that somehow contact can be made. Eventually you and the rest of your group are ushered into Kana’s office, the final stop before the show commences, where even more backstory is cleverly dispensed accompanied by impressive tech that is as synchronized and evocative as what one might expect in one of the Disney Parks. Thus your journey through the winding corridors of the fifth floor begins, following a rich, empathetic story full of sorrow, finely told. Vignettes of short, self-contained ghost stories serve as waypoints along the path as well as structurally thematic clues that, in hindsight, subtly foreshadow why the overarching tale of Kana and what pursues her fits so well into the night’s anthology.
The various ghosts and monsters that populate the Mori Storage building are brought to life by a tremendously talented cast of performers whose devotion and focus provide the gravity necessary to ground the show’s more fantastical elements. There are many different acting disciplines at work here: outsized pantomime, aspects of traditional Noh theatre characterization, comedic broadness, nuanced puppetry often carried out by multiple operators in tandem, and exposed dramatic naturalism all come into play at some point and at times simultaneously or only seconds apart. It would have been easy for these conflicting styles to cause the piece to feel schizophrenic or disconnected, but it all feels cohesive thanks to the unifying tone and varied pacing of the direction and the gorgeous, hair-raising original musical score. The actress who played Kana during my performance was beautifully present and generous with her interaction with the audience. As with most stories like this one, the reality of the world lives and dies on how the protagonist is able to sell it, and the level of commitment and emotional range of her performance provided the show with a sturdy, compelling anchor on which to tie its magic.
To put it simply, there is no other show to compare Kaidan Project’s technical elements to, both in terms of scope and artistry. You enter a decrepit freight elevator and exit into a surreal dreamscape that essentially serves as a living museum of the evolution of performance art and special effects. There is mask work, life-sized puppetry, shadow play, full creature costuming, and multi-angle digital projections that interact with the performers. These are all utilized so boldly, and in such close quarters that the effect is never short of stunning. The set designers have embraced the ramshackle realism of the warehouse and grown from its suitably aged bones a magical overlay of fully dressed playing spaces that never cease to surprise as the journey unfolds. The tone feels somewhere in between Alice in Wonderland and Pan’s Labyrinth, but always proudly embodying the distinctly Japanese design palette that informs every aesthetic choice.
This is without a doubt the most seamlessly run tech I have ever seen during an immersive show. There is no iPod to ignore on a table in the corner, no running crew’s creaking footsteps behind you as they prepare the next effect, no projectors, gelled stage lights, or speakers hanging in view out of necessity. There are not only no incidental peeks behind the curtain, but no reminders of any kind that a curtain exists. I find myself still marveling at the incredible precision of some of the more multifaceted effects, and at an utter loss as to how they were achieved so perfectly.
The piece feels very complete, largely because it never feels like just one thing. There are moments of outsized high-speed adrenaline-pumping haste, but those are balanced out by moments of quiet, solitary contemplation. Times where you are led around as a group and times where you can choose to explore on your own at whatever pace you wish. Without warning you could be asked to speak or to aid a character in a task, but it is always clear when the time comes to listen and absorb. You are always on the move meeting one person or another, but no two encounters are ever quite the same. Throughout your journey you’re offered countless little opportunities to interact with the space, from holding a flashlight in place so that your guide can draw a picture of her fears, to opening a suitcase and smelling the perfumed scarf of a loved one long gone, to savoring a piece of candy left over from a better life, to taking a quiet moment to breathe as your wooden rake glides and scratches across the clean, white sand as you silently wonder if meditation actually means anything to you. It’s moments like these that earn Kaidan Project the right to call itself a truly multi-sensory experience. It goes out of its way at all times to remind us as individuals and as members of a group that we are here, that this world is real, and that we have always had the power to affect it. It provides the rare sense that the audience is actually an active, vital partner in bringing the story to life.
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin represents a monumental achievement in this community through its exquisite marriage of story and tech. It is a testament to the creative team and performers how such outlandish and extravagant visuals and effects were able to support rather than obscure what turned out to be a tragic, moving parable of the weight of guilt and the trace of karmic trauma that stays with a person when they wrong another. I found myself crushed by the profundity and inevitability of the conclusion. But don’t take my word for it. This review is just another second hand story with its own bias and point of view. Do yourself a favor: buy a ticket, drive to the warehouse, and see this show, confident in the powers of the people within. No one could tell this story better.
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin is currently running through November 5th. For more information and to purchase tickets for Kaidan Project, please click here.