Literary Arts Presents the Portland Book Festival Portland Oregon

Dragons, quests, and a fine fairy tale

Oregon Children's Theatre's "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" spins a visually sumptuous fantasy from Chinese folklore.

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Madeleine Tran as Minli and Samson Syharath as the Dragon. Photo: Owen Carey

On a warm Sunday afternoon in downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre, the kids were restless. Restless, and loud. Loud, and fussy. The show hadn’t begun, and one young man was tossing what seemed very like a temper tantrum, shouting, crying, making a dragon-sized fuss.

And then.

And then, with the lights low, the sound of a flute danced through the air and the young upset man grew quiet, and sat entranced, rapt, attentive, eager to discover what might come next.

It seemed like magic. And magic, of course, it was. The magic of theater. The magic of story. The magic of, well, magic.

The play, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of Min Kahng’s short and satisfying musical Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is very much a fable, a fairy tale, in which everyday reality and universal forces meet and mix, and everyone simply accepts that the natural and supernatural cross paths and, mixing, create new realities. A dragon (not just any dragon; a dragon with distressing issues and a kind heart) plays a key role. A girl with firm and simple faith embarks on a heroine-journey to seek advice from the Old Man on the Moon. Fish speak, imparting cryptic yet benevolent messages. A wise elder carries secret knowledge. An unjust ruler gets a comeuppance. And (spoiler alert) a happy ending rises.

I haven’t read Grace Lin’s illustrated children’s book from which the play is adapted, but it appears to have provided a solid and sprightly foundation for the play, which is anchored in tradition and filled with plentiful individual touches. Yes, it’s a fairy tale. And yes, it’s this fairy tale; its own happy invention.

We’re transported to China, in some vague pre-modern time, and yearning’s in the air. Life is hard, not what it ought to be; something’s been lost and must be repaired. Old tales, spun with humor and affection by the villager Ba (Jeremy Abe) to his young daughter Minli (Madeleine Tran), turn out not to be fabrications but clues to a higher and deeper reality of restorative possibilities, and Minli meets them with eager ears and can-do drive. Ma (Beatriz Abella) seems harsh but only wants to protect her daughter, who, determined, slips away on her quest. Story becomes reality, mountains are traversed, friends are found, wrongs are made right.

Director Dmae Lo Roberts keeps the action brisk in this 75-minute adventure, emphasizing both the underlying humor in the tale and a stylized approach to the performances. (Roberts’ organization MediaRites is a presenting partner with OCT; she is also creator of and interviewer for the Stage & Studio podcast, which is hosted on ArtsWatch.) Music direction is by Addison DeSantis (besides that opening flute, the sounds include more instrumental music and a dozen songs—Beatriz Abella, who plays Ma, is also vocal captain–that help push the action along).

Jenny Yokoyama, Beatriz Abella, Jeremy Abe, Medeleine Tran, Terry Kitagawa, and Lulu Kashiwabara. Photo: Owen Carey

The talented veteran choreographer Minh Tran creates the fabulist movement, which flows throughout the piece and subtly reinforces a sense of elevated, not-quite-real reality; Syharath, whose earnest comedy chops as the not-so-hapless dragon make him an audience favorite, also serves as dance captain. As befits a quest heroine, Tran’s bright and humorous Minli is the driving force behind this happy and altruistic tale. She, Syharath, Abella, and Abe have a nice sympatico as the four major characters, and the trio of Terry Kitagawa, Jenna Yokoyama, and Lulu Kashiwabara (Jason Nuesa and Kaitlyn O’Neill are understudies) move deftly through a variety of villagers and other characters.

As happily performed as the tale is, much of the production’s captivating sense of fantasy comes from its design and technical achievements. Sumi Wu’s costumes strike a sensitive balance between tradition and tongue-in-cheek embellishment (and because almost everyone plays multiple roles, there are a lot of costumes and a lot of quick changes). John Kashiwabara’s fluid set takes full advantage of the Newmark’s wide stage and high fly spaces, deftly moving the action from village to forest to mountaintop and back. Victoria Beach’s props, which range from fishbowls to billowing rivers of fabric to kites, enliven the action; Lawrence Siulagi’s sound and projection design are integral to the fantasy; and the fine veteran lighting designer Jeff Forbes both brilliantly and subtly illuminates the show. Willow Zheng serves as both art director and cultural consultant, and Amanda Vander Hyde plays the key role of stage manager, making sure everything happens when, where, and how it’s supposed to.

In the end, dragons are not slain: This is a good dragon. But on Sunday afternoon dragons’ tempers were becalmed, as if by magic – not just the magic of the flute, but of the elevating fluidity of a tale well told.

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  • Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon continues through May 28 at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland.
  • Grace Lin, author and illustrator of the book on which the play is based, will be in attendance at the show’s 2 p.m. performance Saturday, May 27, and will do a book-signing in the lobby after the show sponsored by Green Bean Books.
  • See and hear Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage & Studio podcast talk with author Grace Lin here.

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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