'Trees and Ghosts': Manga's Magical Touch

Jamieson Baker in the visually inventive production at Georgetown University.
Jamieson Baker in the visually inventive production at Georgetown University. (By Rafael Suanes -- Georgetown University)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Manga, as just about every kid in middle school knows, is the word for Japanese graphic novels. Although it's not a verb, it certainly seems to be in Georgetown University's production of "Trees and Ghosts": The show finds ways to manga all over the stage.

"Trees and Ghosts" is acted by students but adapted and directed by visiting professor Natsu Onoda, who has done this sort of thing professionally in Chicago with her Live Action Cartoonists troupe. The theatrical vocabulary on display at the Gonda Theatre (one of the many handsome new performing arts facilities that have popped up on campuses throughout the region) is quite assured and surprisingly broad.

Anyone can use projections these days, but how do you get a small filmed figure to sprint over the gentle slope at the back of Veronica Lancaster's simple, elegant set? That's just one of a number of nifty visual tricks Onoda deploys in the telling of three tales by manga master Osamu Tezuka, who's perhaps best known in the United States for the 1960s cartoon "Astro Boy."

Yet most of the theatrics are comparatively low-tech, even if the framework of the first tale -- about a missing general and the spirits he eventually tries to protect -- is its filming (what looks like live-action video is projected on the back wall and on monitors rolled out from the wings).

Plush puppets, an actor racing across the stage in a giant panda suit -- Onoda isn't afraid of simple solutions, which often work because they are delightfully unexpected. How, for instance, do you tell a fable about two giant warring birds? Onoda's actors flock about carrying placards of happy, colorful birds, but when they flip those cards and gather, a massive, fierce-looking creature emerges.

The feud is depicted by cartooning, as the ensemble sketches the two ever-growing birds on a chalkboard-size sheet of paper. It's both amusing and dramatic to see how speedily the drawings evolve, and the paper is cleverly recycled when the rivals rip each other to shreds.

The homespun effects coexist nicely with the sophisticated business, which includes videotaped commercials for the program's upcoming productions -- one of which is the District premiere of David Hare's "Stuff Happens" (for those of you who have been wondering whether this political hot potato would be staged in the nation's capital at all). But the production's least flashy scene -- the final tale about a young man who thinks he'd rather be a soldier than a taiko drummer -- is in fact its weakest, sluggishly told and ending with a live rock show that comes across as extremely rudimentary.

Still, there is plenty in this exercise for the student actors, who often affectionately mock the slightly mechanical movements and unreal timing of anime. (Students also seem to be manning the bank of computers running the complicated show.) And despite stretches of tedium toward the end, it's hard not to admire how the production salutes Tezuka by frowning at war and smiling at creativity, and with a good deal less academic irony than childlike joy.

Trees and Ghosts, adapted and directed by Natsu Onoda, from the graphic novels of Osamu Tezuka. Lighting design/technical director, Robbie Hayes; video and sound design, Ben Sondies; costume and props design, Debra Kim Sevigny. Through Nov. 17 at Georgetown University's Gonda Theatre. Visit http://performingarts.georgetown.edu. http://

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