Astro Boy in three dimensions, by a director who thinks multi-dimensionally
By Peter Marks,
When Natsu Onoda Power was a young girl (and not yet a creative Power in her own right) she had the idea of traveling to Tokyo from her tiny, isolated rice-farming village and surprising her cartooning idol, Osamu Tezuka, with a plate of home-baked sugar cookies.
This was even more whimsical than it sounds. Shy little Natsu Onoda, who had never met Tezuka — creator of Astro Boy and widely regarded as the father of modern Japanese comics, or manga — got it into her head that on a public visiting day at his studio, the great man, after sampling the cookies, might decide to take this devoted student of his work under his wing.
“I stopped him and said, ‘Can I be your assistant?’ ” Power recalls of her chance encounter with Tezuka in a hallway, and her offer of a cookie. “He said, ‘These are really good. But you should finish middle school first.’ ”
That precocious attraction to imaginative inspiration has followed Power into adulthood and her professional theatrical life, as a teacher and performance artist. As an assistant professor of theater at Georgetown University, Power, 38, has been slowly building a Washington résumé, in the realms of stage design (“Metamorphosis”) and direction (“Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”) after establishing herself as an innovative blender of theater and cartooning in Chicago. And now at last, Power has been given a big platform here for a piece of her own devising, a work tying together her loves of Tezuka and technically novel means of expressing ideas on the stage.
Drawing — quite literally — on her lifelong fascination with manga, Power unveils her world-premiere production “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” in previews beginning Wednesday at Studio Theatre. The piece, written and staged by Power, recounts in reverse, episodic chronology the interlocking biographies of the cartoon sensation Astro Boy and Tezuka, who died in 1989. (Power, to her regret, never had a second opportunity to speak with him.)
Tezuka’s crime-fighting Astro Boy first appeared in comic-book form in Japan in the 1950s, and in the early 1960s became popular in the United States, courtesy of a Japanese cartoon series adapted for English-speaking viewers. In 2009, Astro Boy returned as an animated film.
Among the eight actors are several who are required each night to perform a task rarely undertaken onstage: brandishing thick black markers and sketching cartoons in real time.
The show is an important test of Power’s applicability; although she founded a small Chicago theater collective called Live Action Cartoonists, Studio is a far more “establishment” venue for her art. But if theater is in a feverish search to find enticing ways to absorb and reflect the technologies that consume our time, then Power may be an artist this moment calls for. While her friends say she espouses little interest in public acclaim, they also see in her an ambition that belies the modesty. “Natsu is absolutely the real deal, authentically brilliant, and is going to make a big mark,” observes Tony-winning, Chicago-based director Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphoses”), her close friend and mentor.
“Her ideas are very original; I’m sure what she does is not to everyone’s taste. But she doesn’t care about that. She lives a very, very creative life — every moment.”
Her admirers also include Studio’s artistic director, David Muse, who’d first heard about Power from Zimmerman, when he served as her assistant on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2004 production of “Pericles.” He and Keith Alan Baker, who runs Studio’s 2ndStage program, hired Power to direct “Songs of the Dragons,” a scaldingly comic assault on Asian stereotyping by up-and-coming playwright Young Jean Lee, and followed up with the invitation to create a show of her own devising.
“I whispered to Keith, ‘Should we talk to Natsu about what she wants to work on? Maybe we should just give her the keys to the castle,’ ” Muse remembers. “There are so few artists in this city who are generative in the same way — who are like ‘director-writer-creators.’ How can you not want to find a place for someone like that in your season?”
An irreverent ingenuity does seem to flow through Power’s veins. She’s married to Tom Power, chef-owner of Corduroy on Ninth Street NW, and perhaps that has informed some of her work, including her 2011 stage adaptation at Georgetown of Michael Pollan’s nonfiction work, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Friends and associates affectionately recount her iconoclastic style. Zimmerman says at their very first encounter, Power was naked: She had walked into Zimmerman’s performance art class at Northwestern University that way to appear in a friend’s work.
“I was such a bad actor,” Power says with a sigh, adding that she appeared in the very first production of Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.” “I would never cast myself in a show.”
“She’s famous for being able to fix anything,” Zimmerman says . “She’d tell you things like, ‘I didn’t like the side that the refrigerator door was attached on, so I put in on the other side.’ ”
Even the tale of how she wound up enrolling as an undergraduate at Northwestern — where she’d eventually earn her PhD with a dissertation on Tezuka — has a whimsical prologue. She got the theater bug during a high school year abroad in Oxnard, Calif., where she ran with the drama crowd and landed a part in the backstage farce “Noises Off.”
“I got along with the theater kids more than the cool kids,” she says. “I started writing plays, and decided that I really wanted to go to a university to study that.”
How did she settle on Northwestern? She smiles. “I found it in a catalogue,” she says.
The school, with its celebrated performance studies program taught by theater-world stars such as Zimmerman and Frank Galati, was an apt launching pad. In Chicago in 2002, she created the experimentally inclined Live Action Cartoonists troupe with three other Northwestern students, who had special skills in video, sound and cartooning. One of their first offerings, “Are You in My Negative Space?, a Performance About Comics, War and Love,” was described by critic Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times as being “a wonderfully homemade yet sophisticated multi-media show that is not just original, playful and thought-provoking, but also has moments of powerful emotional connection.”
Like many of her pieces, “Negative Space” integrated the drawing of cartoons into the narrative. “She’s interested in the performance and magic of any intense process,” says Alex Thomas, the cartoonist whom Power recruited to be part of the Live Action company. “My involvement in theater was all because of Natsu.”
Thomas, who’d been a medical student while performing with Live Action and is now a pediatrician, was brought by Power to Washington in January for a week of drawing “boot camp” with the actors of “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” who would be required to sketch on sheets of paper every night. The piece returns to Power’s signature subject, Tezuka, and attempts to link the origin tale of Astro Boy, the robot superhero who yearns to be human, with aspects of Tezuka’s life, as well as with the history of science fiction. It’s also a direct descendant of Live Action’s work, as it incorporates some scenes from the company’s earliest production.
“What I love to put into all of my shows is athletic drawing,” Power says. “Things being made onstage are important to me.” In the case of her “Astro Boy,” she also wanted to reflect in her production the primitive, cinematic action of the early “Astro Boy” animated cartoons. “We’ll quote the techniques of limited animation to tell a story of limited emotions,” she says.
Clark Young, a 2009 Georgetown graduate and one of the actors in the Studio show, has to gather his thought for several seconds before trying to characterize what “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” is up to. “The way I describe ‘Astro Boy’ is it’s a letter to an artist,” he says, finally. “It’s the honoring of his creation in all different genres of performance.”
“It’s a really universal story she’s trying to tell,” says Jamie Gahlon, another Georgetown alumus in the cast, whom Power pursued for the production because she knew how to draw; at auditions, all potential ensemble members had to put pen to paper. “It’s what it is to be human, and how do you love: How does personal narrative interweave with personal output?”
Young sees a connection, between the director and the source of her inspiration. “I was thinking about how resourceful they both are, in terms of taking things you wouldn’t expect to be beautiful and making them transcendent,” he says. “So much of what I’ve seen Natsu do has been on such a limited budget and small space, and she just finds a way to do it. That just reminds me of Tezuka, too.”
Power acknowledges her ongoing debt to the god of manga, but at the moment, she’s thinking more about how she might engage mere mortals with her theatrical ingenuity. “I would love it,” she says, “if comics geeks would come and see the play.”
“Astro Boy and the God of Comics”
Wednesday-March 11, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Studio Theatre. 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org.