When is a wisk not a wisk? When it is transformed into a Japanese woman on a journey to learn the secret of how air or fire can be held in paper. When is a pepper shaker not a pepper shaker? When it becomes a young African woman in search of the home of her bridegroom. In Folktalkes of Asia and Africa, Jane Catherine Shaw and her array of kitchen utensils are able to enact such magical thrills. Whole worlds are built on stage through the use of simple household objects. This children’s puppet play at LaMaMa is a delight for audiences of all ages. We meet Ms. Shaw as she is in her kitchen preparing some bread. She decides to tell some stories to pass the time as she waits for her bread to rise. The piece contains three folktales: a story from Burma about a hard-working rice farmer and the goddess of the moon; a Japanese tale about two women who must solve a riddle to please their beloved father-in-law; and an African legend dealing with two sisters who each wish to marry a local chief. All of these narratives are charming in their own rights. They convey simple, endearing and enduring messages through compelling characters in relatable situations. It is refreshing to hear folktales with which many audience members may not already be familiar. The stories are able to be surprising and heartwarming through their unexpected twists and turns.
What makes this play true magic is not the stories themselves, however. What is most remarkable in Shaw’s piece is the way she renders these tales on stage. The play is a puppet play, but there are no classically recognizable marionettes or even sock puppets here. Rather, she creates the entire worlds of all these stories through her interesting narration, marked by unique voices for each character, and her use of various common household objects. With the help of a touch of fabric and a little imagination these kitchen utensils easily and fluidly become whatever character our narrator needs them to be. These basic objects are as believable as any more detailed performative objects might have been in their places.
This play suggests the power of the human imagination. Shaw’s play is a clear reminder to children and adults alike in the audience that our minds can transport us to exciting places if we only imagine them. Folktales of Asia and Africa reminds us that we do not need any sophisticated props of any sort to create whole worlds within our own homes. All we need is a good story to tell, one that we mix with pinch of ingenuity and a dash of imagination. Shaw’s play proves that with these simple ingredients, true performance magic can be created.