Spring is upon us and children’s theater is all around! The Last Firefly is one of many imaginative and compelling pieces of storytelling available for our younger audiences around the Twin Cities. While The Last Firefly doesn’t shy away from more grim themes and images, it also revels in the magic of live theater and the emotional impact of light.
The crack of thunder. The persistent sound of heavy raindrops.
In The Last Firefly, playwright Naomi Iizuka has borrowed from Japanese folklore and the theatrical conventions of Kabuki, cherry picking scenarios and imagery that are deeply compelling. Like so many children’s stories, our main child protagonist Boom (Shina Xiong) must go on a hero’s journey to grow into her own power. Prompted by her mother Kuroko’s (Dexieng Yang) stories about a human child whose father is Thunder, a particularly abusive bout with her stepfather Ax (Gregory Yang) results in Boom’s search for Thunder. She believes Thunder can bring peace to her violent home. Along the way, she meets an unlikely cast of characters and traveling companions. The first is Monkey (John Lutterman) whose quick thinking leads her into the Trees (Julia Biddlecome and Isabella Beltran Shapland). Monkey’s mockery, teasing, and cunning eventually help Boom to capture Lightning (Kajsiab “Jade” Yang). While failing to keep up with Lightening, Boom officially meets Spider (Gabi Del Moral), who shows her that the clouds are made of spider webs.
The sound design by Dameun Strange and lighting design by Tony Stoeri added wonderful depth and sense of place to the pleasantly stark stage. The sound made it feel like we were really inside a storm, and the lighting scheme added pathos and drama to the story. In particular, many of the scenes that involve Boom, Ax and Kuroko are perfectly lit to inspire fear. Relying on varying degrees of puppetry and human bodies as props (from the subtle hand movements encased inside gloved hands for Spider, to a savaging pack of birds, from the Trees’ arms, to a glistening fabric river, from puffs of scarlet feather blood, and finally to a human echo line) the visual play of this show is quite magical.
That being said, there were parts of the script that I found lackluster at best, and highly problematic at worst. Looking at reviews of the first time CTC did The Last Firefly, I was surprised not to read more about the ways in which people speak to Boom. A part of me wonders if just in the last few years--coping daily with female-hostile senate in the era of our pussy-grabbing president, #MeToo, Lean InTM/don’t call girls bossy, and even the pathology of the Bill Cosby abuse scandals, have all completely recalibrated what I think is acceptable and what I personally find hard to watch. Even more than the stage fighting, constant chants by characters such as Monkey that Boom is “stupid” or that if you “say stupid things you are going to get mocked’ are not just grating, they feel actively harmful. Maybe once or twice, but for about a scene and a half this is pretty much all Monkey says to Boom. It eclipses the rest of their bonding scene, and never made me feel like they actually became friends.
I think there may have also been fewer comments on these aspects because when CTC put on this performance Boom was played by a boy. Not only are we collectively more understanding of boys’ violent impulses, but we are also more accepting of a boys-will-be-boys and let-them-fight-it-out mentality. We also often overlook boys’ callous language to one another. Seeing a boy say these lines to a girl reminded me how we should be careful about such language and how it is directed at all genders. This is not a reason not to see this show, but I do want to flag it as something families will want to discuss after they see The Last Firefly.
In the same vein, I enjoyed the darker aspects of this tale, and it behooves us to remember that western folktales were also grim before they were sanitized, sterilized, and packaged by Disney, et al. This production, under Daisuke Kawachi, returns to a more stylized form of stage-fighting that reminds me of anime. Fight director Annie Enneknig has done a wonderful job with the movements of the fights, making them feel both stylized and very energetic. By making the other fight scenes so stylized, this production has drawn a sharp line between heroic fighting and the cruelty Boom and her mother suffer at Ax’s hands. Again, this abuse is quite hard to watch, but it is this show’s hope to create space to discuss this topic.
The Last Firefly plays at Steppingstone Theatre until April 7.