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Theatre Journal 58.2 (2006) 331-333

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Ko Festival of Performance. Artistic Director Sabrina Hamilton. Holden Theater, Amherst College, Amherst. 11 July–6 August 2005.

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Figure 1
Naoko Maeshiba in Remains of Shadow. Photo: Ben Coolik.

The fourteenth annual Ko Festival of Performance (produced by Ko Theatre Works) focused on the theme of "the immigrant's struggle between traditional values and the desire for cultural assimilation or a new identity." As facilitator of post-performance conversations between artists and audiences, I was able to follow this theme on- and offstage. Each of the three planned mainstage productions—even the one that did not take place—explored the opportunities for self-creation that the act of immigration can offer, and the limitations inherent in its promise.

The festival opened with the Obie Award–winning Nita and Zita, written and directed by Lisa D'Amour, and featuring Kathy Randels and Katie Pearl as Nita and Zita, or Flora and Peroska Gellert, two showgirls of the first half of the twentieth century who emigrated from Romania to Ellis Island in the 1920s, made their home in New Orleans (where D'Amour and Randels live) in the 1940s, and retired to a life of local notoriety in the 1950s.

Nita and Zita presented a variety of overlapping events: a fictional re-creation of the historical Nita and Zita's routines; an evocation of Flora and Peroska's immigrant journey and private life in the French Quarter of the 1940s and '50s; a documentary record of D'Amour, Randels, and Pearl's efforts to rediscover the showgirls' story; and a vaudeville séance, in which Randels and Pearl called up the spirit, and perhaps even the spirits, of the deceased "gypsy ladies."

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Figure 2
Naoko Maeshiba and Tatsuya Aoyagi in Remains of Shadow. Photo: Ben Coolik.

The real Nita and Zita embellished, and perhaps partially invented, their past. D'Amour, Randels, and Pearl gave themselves equal latitude in revitalizing their subjects with poetic license as well as historical fact, in campy song-and-dance routines and in partially improvised responses to the inept questions of Mr. Interviewer (an offstage character read by me). In one extended and moving sequence, Randels and Pearl performed a signature gesture to epitomize each year of the sisters' post-immigration lives—making tea, plucking an eyebrow, exercising to maintain their shape, repairing their New Orleans home with tin-can lids—from their early showgirl days to Peroska's growing loneliness at her sister's death, to Peroska's own passing (into her ghostly sister's arms). Throughout, the actors' synchronized gestures and patter evoked the sisterliness of their characters while creating a playfully uncanny sense of being manipulated by the showgirls-beyond-the-grave.

If Nita and Zita reveled in the possibilities for the reinvention of self inherent in immigration (and showbiz), Remains of Shadow, directed and choreographed by Naoko Maeshiba and performed by Maeshiba and Tatsuya Aoyagi, focused on the possibilities of loss. Remains of Shadow probed subtle regions of emotion and memory in the liminal spaces between cultures, countries, and histories. The central figures—a Japanese woman immigrant; a blonde-haired, blue-eyed "friendship doll" of a type manufactured in the United States in the 1920s and sent to Japan to promote intercultural understanding; and a Japanese man searching for a lost child—all evinced a tremendous sense of longing: longing to be different, to comprehend the other through assimilation, for the past, and for home.

The memory spaces of Remains of Shadow were powerfully evoked by festival director Sabrina Hamilton's lighting design, ranging from washes of tranquil blue and dangerous red to shafts of menacing white, skillfully interwoven with the textures of Chas Marsh's video projections, which included dancing letters, spinning texts, snowfields of static, and an eerie Tokyo cityscape. Maeshiba's rich sound score, blending Eastern and Western melodies, sound effects, and voices, further augmented the lighting and video effects. While technology enhanced the production, the virtuosity of performers Maeshiba and Aoyagi proved its centerpiece. Both actors trained...


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