Practical Magic in “The Last Firefly”

Theater Mu and SteppingStone Theatre’s production uses the spirit of kabuki in this story inspired by Japanese folklore and fairy tales
A paper cut promotional poster for Theater Mu and SteppingStone Theatre's "The Last Firefly." Courtesy Theater Mu.

Courtesy Theater Mu

When director Daisuke Kawachi read Naomi Iizuka’s script for The Last Firefly, it played out in front of him like a movie. Boom, the child of Thunder, has to flee home and journeys through unknown territories to find her real father. As Kawachi read Boom’s journey, he saw characters who could be on a rock in a river, and then the rock might transform into a turtle, the river into a whirlpool and then a waterfall. He met the character Lightning who, when first introduced by Iizuka, is constantly shooting out lightning bolts and crackling energy.

All of it sounded beautiful, between the boldness of superheroes and the fantasy of an unconstrained epic colored by the fairy tales and folklore of Japan. The issue was figuring out how to give that experience at Theater Mu and SteppingStone Theatre’s partnering production (running from March 22 through April 7).

Daisuke Kawachi
Director Daisuke Kawachi at a rehearsal for “The Last Firefly.”

Courtesy Theater Mu

The script’s solution was to look toward the traditional Japanese theater form of kabuki, known for its extravagance, catwalk, rotating stage, trapdoors, and harnesses. Some of that was still out of the question, but Kawachi took the spirit of elements like the movement style and the kuroko, who are visible stagehands, and translated it into what he calls a more contemporary and Western approach. It’s about creating, as he says, “practical magic.”

The cast of The Last Firefly consists of 11 youth actors (two of who play Boom and Lightning) and four adults, and it is through them and ingenuity from the creative team that the magic happens. Sarah Brandner’s set has created a world warped by memory with jagged angles that could at first be a door frame, then part of a volcano, then a tree in the forest—fluid, just like a rotating stage. The acting ensemble has to be just as fluid, too. Depending on the scene, they have to act as one entity, independent yet dependent, and instead of memorizing lines, sometimes they have to try to, for example, embody a cloud. For young actors, the intangible can be a lot to ask for.

“When I was a young actor, I remember I wanted to get it right,” Kawachi says. “What I wanted was, ‘Turn to the left, take two steps, turn forward, line.’ I wanted really rigid structures, and I think that speaks to the ways which young people are educated in school systems as well. … It’s a little bit of unlearning that’s happening. What I’m asking them to do is engage creative impulses not necessarily asked for in other environments in their life.”

Jade Yang and Shina Xiong, The Last Firefly
15-year-old Jade Yang, who plays Lightning, embraces 14-year-old Shina Xiong, who plays Boom, during a rehearsal scene.

Courtesy Theater Mu

It may be difficult to envision how these abstract elements and stylization can come together, like how gloves can become a sparrow or how a fight scene can end in rose petals than blood, without being childish. However, with the aesthetic scheme of kabuki, they make sense. In some cases, they even provide a needed veil of the unrealistic so the trauma that shapes Boom’s life doesn’t make for an overwhelming story.

“There’s a dark moment in the beginning and you see it carried onto the end, [but] Daisuke makes sure that’s not what we’re focusing on. The story is about Boom, and the story is about Boom growing up and facing her fear,” says Dexieng Yang, who plays Boom’s mother.

The Last Firefly has pain amid the fantastic and fear, twisting the excitement of adventure, as do most fairy tales and folklore. Most coming-of-age stories are similar. In some ways, the kabuki elements may remove the story from reality, but in others, they may be what help people understand how little moments are filled of magic and meaning, even if they’re over in the blink of an eye.