Part fairy tale, part ghost story, part meditation on mortality and the sublime, Prototype Festival’s Blood Moon, under Rachel Dickstein’s direction, is gorgeous to watch and hear, mournful and a little uncanny. It’s a sumptuous, often achingly beautiful physical production in all its elements: Maiko Matsushima’s costumes with their rich, translucent fabrics; Liv Swenson’s otherworldly metallic makeup for the character of the Moon; Katherine Freer’s allusive video backdrops, centered on that inescapable moon; Daniel Neumann’s whispery, taunting sound design; Erik Sanko’s haunting puppet, which is ghost, corpse, and dying woman all at once. Even composer Garrett Fisher’s orchestrations for an unusual array of instruments (including two taiko drums, harmonium, and viola da gamba) and the plangent countertenor voice of Ju-eh/Juecheng Chen, as the moon–the presiding spirit of the piece–have an unearthly quality that enhances the mood.
The piece is a contemporary response to a fifteenth-century Noh play, and its story, in Ellen McLaughlin’s libretto, is simple and stripped-down, as is Fisher’s music for three voices that rarely sing together. On the night of a blood moon, an old man (Wei Wu) climbs a mountain that he last climbed forty years ago, when he abandoned his elderly aunt to die there and went on to live his life, never looking back. But his decision has haunted him ever since and as he reaches the age his aunt was at her death, he returns to the same spot, under the same moon, to reckon with her spirit. Voiced by mezzo soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen, the aunt and/or her ghost is simultaneously embodied by Nelsen, a full-size puppet animated by dancer/puppeteer Takemi Kitamura, and Kitamura as a dancer. (Sanko’s puppet, and Kitamura’s tenderness with it, are a portrait in grief.)
But if the basic encounter is simple, the tangled web of emotions between the nephew and the aunt is anything but. Having abandoned her for the sake of his freedom, the nephew has never been able to actually live a free life; McLaughlin uses the lovely metaphor of a suit of armor, protective but constricting and hollow. Having been abandoned, the aunt has remained tied to both her nephew and the world. (I think that’s what’s going on, anyway–the status of the aunt is a confusing aspect of the piece; sometimes it seems that the aunt is trapped between this world and the afterlife because of what the nephew did, but then later, it seems that she made the choice–and sometimes it seems like the moon is partly to blame. The “rules” by which the nephew interacts with the aunt–when he’s engaging the puppet and when the live performer–are a little muddled as well.)
Like any good fairy tale, the characters are as much archetype as human, and this is particularly true of the moon, whose role as a narrator can get too abstract and philosophical. However, Chen’s voice, physical presence, and sinuous movements (the choreography is by Dickstein and Kitamura) make the character always mesmerizing to watch. Nelsen’s voice, too, is rich, supple, and emotionally resonant; she brings both real heartbreak and an iron core to the aunt. Wu as the nephew feels a little flat in comparison, though that’s appropriate for his stunted character. (It’s disappointing to see opera singers miked in such a small space, though.)
Late in the piece, the aunt holds up for her nephew three treasured memories, trying to show her nephew how to find true meaning in life, on what lasts and what outlives worldly success. For her, these moments all involve a communion with the sublime, an occasion to look up–at a crane, at a kite, at the ever-present moon–and outside oneself. When the nephew examines his own life, he realizes all of his significant memories involve his aunt: his only family and lost to him through his own actions. In the end, the piece becomes a meditation on the tenacity of grief, but also on the strength of the love that generates such tenacious grief. The ghost may be laid to rest, but aunt, nephew, and moon remain haunted–and hauntingly beautiful.