Japanese ghost stories take the stage in ‘Kwaidan,’ a Spooky Action Theater show


The ensemble performs in “Kwaidan.” (Handout/Evy Mages)

An old man’s head scrolls eerily down the length of his torso, apparently disconnected from his neck. A masked woman stalks down a staircase with a mirror in her hands. Candles line the floor of a corridor en route to a room seemingly draped in white shrouds.

Director Izumi Ashizawa packs some fetching coups de théâtre into “Kwaidan,” an ingeniously devised and mostly well-executed Japanese ghost-story fantasia mounted by Spooky Action Theater. The striking and eerie images don’t just unfurl in front of you. They surround you, absorb you, sometimes loom above or below you: “Kwaidan” is a site-specific production that scales the levels and roams the nooks of the Universalist National Memorial Church, whose ecclesiastical architecture and furnishings enhance the play’s air of mysterious solemnity.

It must be said that the acting is not on par with the visuals: The performers don’t always display the kind of stage presence, physical and vocal command, and interpretive finesse that would make “Kwaidan” a completely satisfying production. Indeed, in its least successful moments (principally some pre-show stage business and various sequences involving unconvincing special effects), the show evokes a haunted house mounted by college students. Still, audiences interested in unconventional and immersive theater experiences — and people who relish surprising and resonant images — will find the hour-long “Kwaidan” worth their time.

So may people of a literary bent: Ashizawa and Spooky Action artistic director Richard Henrich adapted the script from Lafcadio Hearn’s retellings of Japanese ghost stories and legends. Hearn (1850-1904) was an author and scholar of Greek and Irish parentage who moved to Japan in 1890, after decades in America, where he had worked as a journalist. A reverence for the raw power of story and a sense of mystique and distance that might come naturally to a scribbler reveling in the culture of a foreign land emerge from this dramatization. (“Kwaidan” means “ghost stories” in Japanese.)

When you arrive at the church (Spooky Action Theater’s home), a kimono-clad guide ushers you into a vestibule, where your playbill is stamped in red ink by an actor representing a bureaucratic customs agent. Slightly hokey howlings erupt periodically from elsewhere in the building. Eventually, a bemused-looking man in a white suit plods downstairs into the vestibule. This is Lafcadio Hearn (David Gaines), who will be onlooker and intermittent participant in the spectral goings-on. (MiRan Powell, Gusela White and Jenna Zhu portray guides; Stephen Michael Krzyzanowski is the customs agent.)

Guides escort you through hallways, up and down stairwells, and into various rooms, pausing as members of the ensemble enact brief narratives — tales of haunted locales, supernatural romance, a corpse-eating specter and more. The performers, who include Jennifer Knight, Tuyet Thi Pham and Jacob Yeh, wear traditional Japanese costumes and occasionally masks, designed by Ashizawa. Bells frequently ring, contributing to a brooding soundscape. (Neil McFadden designed the sound.)

The stage business makes terrific use of the building’s various crannies. Audiences are advised to wear comfortable shoes. (The company will offer two performances of “Kwaidan” at the ADA-accessible Sprenger Theatre of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on June 17.)

One of the most powerful scenes, about a mourning lover (Knight), features a phantasmal face that materializes in surprising fashion in a tiny room. Another, in a duskily lit space where stacked chairs cast ominous shadows, tells of a blind musician (Justin Le) attacked by warrior ghosts. (Czerton Lim contributed the shrewdly minimalist set design; Brian S. Allard designed the lighting.) All in all, it’s enough to make you feel like borrowing the words of a wondering character in one of Hearn’s stories: “What strange wild fancies!”

Wren is a freelance writer

‘Kwaidan’

by Lafcadio Hearn, adapted by Richard Henrich and Izumi Ashizawa. Direction and costume design by Ashizawa; properties, Deb Crerie. With Phillip Chang and Momo Nakamura. About one hour. Tickets: $15-35. Through June 22 at The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW, Washington, except for the June 17 performances at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Call 202-248-0301 or visit www.spookyaction.org.

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