The erotic shadow-puppet production of Oni at the Fringe Festival is about as bizarre as the stories that inspired it. Entertaining? Yes. Beautifully crafted and executed? Exceedingly so at times. However: bizarre and absurd, like a delirious grandparent’s story told as they nod off to sleep.
Presented by the Mochinosha Wishes Mystical Puppet Company, created by Japanese puppeteer Seri Yanai, and performed by Yanai and Canadian puppeteer Daniel Wishes, Oni tells the story of the three-centrimetre-tall Samurai hopeful Issun-Boshi, the characters that surround him and their dealings with vexing spirits, the oni.
Before the show begins, Yanai and Wishes come out onstage, sit in front of their screen — a large reflector used for photo photography, it turns out — introduce themselves and begin the show with little ceremony. This typifies the dynamic between performers and audience in Oni, a kind of low-fi, unapologetic show that’s not afraid to show the strings, or in this case the hands, that move the puppets. On several occasions, the performers apologized for a small mistake or drew attention to the fact that they were passing, sometimes fumbling, puppets between the two of them. It would seem amateurish if they didn’t do it with a strange charm.
Yanai recites the story in Japanese with Wishes giving a translation liberal with Western-isms. Even without the translation, Yanai is hilarious to listen to. She is an excellent performer, and the shadow puppets she creates are gorgeous and intricate, easily the most magical aspect of the show. Wishes’ performance keeps the show feeling laid-back. While his additions sometimes fall a little flat, others getting a smattering of chuckles, overall the performers work well together to create a little show that isn’t afraid to make mistakes.
The erotic aspects promised, which I have a feeling is what drew a lot of the crowd there — myself included — are disappointingly thin, though outrageous and funny nonetheless. There are some gorgeous images created through the puppetry. The show feels in need of a little tightening, which may come with further performances.
There is an exoticized tension to the show that I find it hard to put my finger on. Due to the charming and relaxed nature of the production, and the promised but almost undelivered sexy parts, it feels a bit like a big practical joke, like the performers are laughing at the audience laughing at them. I hope this is part of the intention and not just the product of my paranoia, because I like that playful, mocking aspect. This is dispelled somewhat when, at the end, the house lights are brought up and the performers ask for questions and explain that the story is a combination of several Japanese folk tales with a little of the performers’ own personality thrown in.
The show, in more than one sense, is teasing; finishing without any real climax. Oni is a strange combination of beautiful and bizarre. Why? I’d recommend going and finding out for yourself, if only so you can say you watched a three-centimetre warrior go down on a mythical princess.