We begin making theatre by entering space.
Performers show up for an audition or rehearsal. A director or designer sits in the dark house, imagining how the story will fill the empty stage. Audience members arrive, finding their places, eager for the show. An actor walks into the scene.
The space we enter is sacred.
It may be a gold-leafed and chandeliered opera house, a 40-seat black box, or a chalk circle on a sidewalk. But it has been set apart from the world and its uses, to contain a story.
In the handsome 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre, the East-West Players are gathering five times a week to perform a play about sacred space, its magic and its delicacy.
Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, is clearly about origami, the classical Japanese art of paper folding. The theatre is filled with origami art — on the walls, hanging from wires, all over the stage. And all three of the play’s characters are origami artists.
Yet — just as origami is deeply about space, the way folded planes of paper move into far different spaces than a flat sheet can — Animals Out of Paper is deeply about space. The space of a person’s life, and how we enter and leave one another’s sacred precincts.
The script itself is a stunning achievement. Simple, swift, often highly comical, yet heart-wrenching, it compactly tells the story of a wounded artist, an eager teacher and the student they share.
In words on paper, Joseph has made a piece of fractal art. Almost every part contains the whole, and could stand alone as a metaphor for it. The enormous paper hawk (by master folder Robert Lang) that dominates the stage at the start; the fire extinguisher on the kitchen table; the apartment intercom, and on and on. Each thing fits, tells the story.
Director Jennifer Chang has sensed the intricacy and delicacy of this story — and the people in it — and has created a half-magical world.
Rooted in the everyday of rain-soaked clothes and crusty take-out cartons, its spaces (a messy studio, a restaurant, a hotel room) stand at the foot of a bridge between here and everywhere, now and always. When characters step on that bridge, composer Melanie Chen hangs a soft arpeggio in the air, like an origami balloon.
But most of the story inhabits daily reality. Each character can lift up — Ilana (Tess Lina) and Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar) on the wings of art, Andy (C.S. Lee) on the winds of spiritual insight. But they still walk flat-footed into each others’ lives and hearts — at times with care, but often with an unaware clumsiness we each know too well.
When we enter one another’s sacred space, we find surprises. Hurt feelings … a warm welcome … an angry rebuff … an unexpected kiss. Love and, inevitably, loss.
As master folder Ilana, a woman cut open by loss, Lina gingerly lets us share her struggle to hold herself together, driving the story like a wounded bird seeking refuge yet needing to fly. In Andy, Lee crafts a loveable, self-deprecating innocent, unskilled at folding, who has laid his deepest self open across the flat pages of a journal. And as the student Suresh, Talwalkar offers a gentle genius hiding behind a hip-hop mask, betrayed by his as yet simply folded heart.
The actors move from collision to comedy to anguish like skilled dance partners, like a string trio soaring through a sonata. They’re supported by Naomi Kasahara’s daringly complex set design (with several very large folds, accomplished deftly between scenes) and Halei Parker’s spot-on costumes (Ilana: grace pulled from a laundry basket, Andy: comfortable yet about to burst, Suresh: colorful and shedding).
Chen’s music ranges from assaultingly loud rap to a brief, elegant keyboard signature that grows subtly toward a fugue by the end. Tom Ontiveros’ shrewd, understated lighting also helps weave a world where magic is always ready to break through the chrysalis of hard-edged reality.
This piece of theatre enters into our sacred, private spaces. While we watch and listen, laugh and weep, it reaches deep, touching the loves and losses that have creased our own lives.
In New York, Animals Out of Paper was justly acclaimed by a Times critic as “pitch-perfect” writing. In its LA premiere — as the flagship theatre for Asian-American artists opens its 50th season — Chang and her cohort create a delicate, stunning artwork from simple-seeming materials.
Note: During the rehearsal process, I had the opportunity to watch this production develop, thanks to the generosity of the company and Jennifer Chang (whom I’m honored to call a friend).
Under her intensely focused yet always gentle stewardship, this group of artists took a beautiful sheet of paper and found the folds and creases to give it space-filling, breathtaking form.
Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by the East-West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012.
Origami artists: Jim Cowling, Joe Hamamoto, Robert Lang, Marti Reis, Michael Sanders, Joyce Sandler, Joel Stern, Carol Stevens and Hisako Tanji.
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through October 5.