A Trip to the Moon

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: Take this ‘Trip’ for the scenery, not the story
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, December 11, 2012

For childlike wonder, who else working in theater today can meet the enchanting standards of Natsu Onoda Power? Her latest performance piece, “A Trip to the Moon,” ties together her loves of drawing, science fiction, folk tales and children’s stories -- ingredients that meshed so brilliantly in her production at Studio Theatre earlier this year, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.”

Her captivating process, in which actors brandishing markers and paintbrushes draw the scenery as the audience watches, is on display again, this time on the Synetic Theater stage in Crystal City. And while an enjoyable sensation of “how do they do that?” suffuses the newest work -- which also features the choreography of Synetic’s Irina Tsikurishvili -- there’s an air of incompletion swirling around the show, too.

It is in the joints that “A Trip to the Moon” could still use some strengthening. The 90-minute play is Onoda Power’s riff on one of the earliest sci-fi flicks made, a silent French 1902 movie of the same title, in which a team of scientists land on the lunar surface and fight off a race of creepy moon monsters.

A re-creation of scenes from the film is intermingled in the Synetic offering with two other outer-space-themed tales: an ancient Japanese folk story about a foundling child who turns out to be a moon goddess, and an account of the adventures of Laika, the dog launched into orbit in 1957 as an experiment by the Soviet space program.

At moments, “A Trip to the Moon” exposes its celebration of innocence, whether through the actors’ real-time illustrating on a mural-size sheet of drawing paper of the film’s exotic moonscape, or the sweet, sad story of Laika, a stray picked off a street, tested for her reactions to spaceship flight and blasted off into the ether, all by herself. As portrayed by Karen O’Connell (in space helmet, of course), poor Laika valiantly speeds toward certain death. Over the loudspeaker, meanwhile, a mother narrates the tale of Laika’s fate to a child, who may be learning about death for the first time.

The three stories have a thematic link, but the connections perceived by Onoda Power, a theater professor at Georgetown University, come across at this juncture as the fodder for an entertaining lecture rather than a fleshed-out theatrical idea. The voice-overs in the narrative feel clunky, akin to what you might hear in primitive cartoons; the announced transitions are of the “And now we take you to . . .” variety. The episodic structure doesn’t supply much cogent rationale, either, for why these disparate subplots are rolled out in one show.

Technically, too, things get a little frenetic on the stage; on the night I attended, the actors wielding geometric shapes to form and re-form images of the modes of transportation contemplated by the team heading to the moon became too caught up in the activity. While the sequence was clever, it ended with someone slashing the drawing paper hanging upstage.

No shortage of imaginative brio restricts the design team of “A Trip to the Moon”: Kendra Rai’s costumes, especially for the moon monsters and the characters of the Japanese folk tale, evoke the whimsical lightness and darkness of children’s dreams. And when the energetic actors pick up their drawing implements, you can’t take your eyes off their exertions. At times, the drawings themselves seem to metamorphose into moving pictures -- the art form that gives “A Trip to the Moon” its starting point. Now, to sharpen this worthwhile project, what might be required is another take or two.

PREVIEW: ‘Moon' a slight twist for Synetic
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, November 30, 2012

Few Washington directors have more buzz than Natsu Onoda Power, the Georgetown assistant professor whose passion for whimsy and projections transformed Studio Theatre’s recent “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” into a whiz-bang example of what local theater could be.

That wasn’t lost on Paata Tsikurishvili, artistic director of the physical performance troupe Synetic Theater. He saw “Astro Boy” last winter and promptly called the director. Onoda Power had created sets and costumes for Synetic’s 2010 show, “The Metamorphosis,” but Tsikurishvili was calling with something else in mind: Would she be interested in directing one of the troupe’s shows?

“My shows have never been text-driven,” Onoda Power says. “So it blends really well with the company’s style.” Onoda Power’s own tastes, however, are whimsical, where Synetic’s, she says, are inarguably dark. The two met somewhere in the middle.

Over coffee, she and Tsikurishvili searched for a concept, settling on Georges Melies’s 1902 silent sci-fi short film, “A Trip to the Moon,” which Onoda Power had seen in graduate school at Northwestern University. (Because of copyright issues, her dream of producing a stage version of “Godzilla” will have to wait.)

Melies’s movie serves as the thematic tie, and provides the title, for Synetic’s “A Trip to the Moon.” But it is not the sole inspiration.

“I began researching lunar ad­ven­ture, fictional and real, and I thought I would do a collection of stories,” says Onoda Power. One of the stories she chose was “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a bittersweet folk tale from her native Japan about a childless bamboo cutter who discovers in the stalks a baby girl with hair that glows eerily like the moon. Staging it, she says, is like “revisiting my childhood.” For the second vignette, Onoda Power drew from the true story of Laika, a stray dog launched into space by Russia in 1957 as a trial run for human space travel.

“Laika was the first dog to make it out of the stratosphere, but she died when the spaceship started breaking down on the sixth day,” Onoda Power says. “They never intended to send them to the moon; they were just sending them to space. In the case of Laika, they didn’t even build the mechanism to return her to Earth.”

A third story, that of the silent film, is woven in between, an ideal vehicle for Synetic’s strength -- highly expressive, but nearly wordless, theater.

The troupe, however, will have to work within Onoda Power’s high-tech world. For “A Trip to the Moon,” the director has teamed up with her “Astro Boy” collaborator, Jared Mezzocchi, who has created a backdrop for the show that’s as alive as the performers.

Onoda Power is drawing all of the scenery by hand, which Mezzocchi, the show’s multimedia designer, will animate and project onto the set, a departure for a company that has relied on abstract, but fixed, sets.

“The vision is very similar to ‘Astro Boy,’ in that live drawing meets live performance meets live video,” Mezzocchi says. “Just in the first week of watching Synetic work in Natsu’s imagined landscape, it made perfect sense. She’s a very movement-based director and imaginer. I just think that her world and this company work really, really nicely together.”

Ultimately, “A Trip to the Moon,” Onoda Power says, “is really about attaining the unattainable and what happens when you do.”

“If it’s tapping anything, it’s very much tapping the mythic way in which we view the moon, and the way we dream,” Mezzocchi adds. “What is the sky to all of us, and why do we want to get there?”