The U.S. premiere of YŌKAI: Remedy for Despair by the Oslo-Paris physical theater ensemble The Krumple opened last night at The Tank in New York City, and an impressive debut it is.
Though titled after supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore, YŌKAI, a first prize recipient at the Les Plateaux du Groupe Geste(s) 2016, feels very European. A witty and soulful amalgam of physical theater, clowning, dance, magic, and miniatures, it presents a series of atmospheric vignettes on themes both tragic and comic, sad and romantic, with essentially no dialogue.
An ambitious, wide-eyed would-be singing star takes a heavenly detour on the way to a big audition. A Nordic fisherman becomes the fished. A neglectful father tries to win back his daughter’s affection on Christmas eve. A bird-woman throws herself at a reluctant man who is slowly turning into a vine. What connects these stories isn’t plot or character, but presentation and theme. When they do eventually merge, it’s not to develop any sort of plot, but to suggest the universality of the situations.
Yet the show embodies this message, if you can call it a message, with gauzy softness. Rather than seeking to enlighten, it mesmerizes abstractly, with stagy wisdom that seems beyond the years of these young artists but obviously isn’t.
Seemingly plain wooden blocks transform into a varied array of props, from furniture to skyscrapers. The six talented performers sneak or slam in and out, now characters, now puppeteers, now set constructors, now birds or clouds, always charming and disarming. We detect many influences and resonances – a little Mr. Bean, a little Ovid, and many more – along with plenty of hilarity and a lot of heart.
The significance of the subtitle “Remedy for Despair” also comes through not as a pointed statement but through humorous artistic depictions of human interactions: the father struggling to make amends to his daughter but unable to drag himself away from his business calls; the camaraderie the fisherman offers him; the persistent bird-woman wearing down the shy vine-man until their rough clash-dance becomes a graceful pas-de-deux. We internalize our ills, just as these characters literally swallow their battles and anxieties, but we can disgorge them too, as they do, with a laugh or a song. Even a storm cloud can become a medium for an angelic spirit.
Each vignette gains some aspect of redemption or transformation in the wake of disruption and death. At the end, when all the characters and props gather amid a cacophonous musical score on a stage once bare but now littered with the detritus of their struggles, they expand their magical universe to encompass the audience – not only figuratively, which they’ve already accomplished, but literally.
You can catch the marvelous YŌKAI: Remedy for Despair through September 24 at The Tank’s new space at 312 W. 36th St, NYC. For schedule and tickets visit The Tank online.