Two lovely and brilliantly performed stories are the highlights of Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo, but their impact is diluted by an abundance of routine standup comedy-style banter. Rakugo is an artform of traditional Japanese storytelling that first appeared in the 18th century. It’s a monologue having at least two characters, in either a comical or sentimental mode with a formalized structure, characterized by a jolting conclusion.
Katsura Sunshine is the stage name of this charismatic 49-year-old Toronto-born performer who relocated to Japan and apprenticed to a Rakugo master. Mr. Sunshine eventually became a notable practitioner in his own right and has the distinction of being a Westerner. Sunshine is affable, animated and possessed of a pleasing fast-paced vocal delivery that demonstrates comic timing and dramatic heft with a Canadian lilt. This vocal expressiveness combined with his shock of jagged blonde hair, striking facial features that he contorts into a gallery of expressions, enables him to command the stage. Wearing a kimono, kneeling at a small table and handling the hallowed props of a fan and a hand cloth, he evokes the genre’s essence with assured authenticity.
That genuine spirit is complemented by scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ sensational setting that conjures up the atmospheric vista of a Japanese locale. Exotic lanterns hang above the stage which has a small raised platform. On it is that small wooden table covered with a red cloth, some native objects and nearby are two candles in long vintage holders. Behind it is a gold-paneled brick-accented segmented screen which changes colors due to Yuki Nakase Link’s entrancing lighting design that veers from simple brightness to complex variations. Though he is relatively stationary, Sunshine is credited as the show’s director, and he has achieved theatricality and visual zest.
A repertoire of eight tantalizing classic stories are listed on Sunshine’s website and these are enacted in rotation throughout this engagement. Sunshine did just two at the performance under review. They were the comic “Chiritotechin Rotten Tofu” about an odious dinner guest and “Reincarnation,” a ravishing exploration of life after death. Oh, if this had been the finale, we would walk out of Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo awestruck. Instead, it was performed very early on, robbing it of its dramatic majesty.
The 85-minute show’s first 30 minutes are taken up with a rambling segment chronicling Sunshine’s life, the characteristics of Rakugo and mundane observations. It’s a saggy preamble and such strained tangential jocularity dominates, rather than there being a welcome program of more actual Rakugo. Still, Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo has its charms and showcases Sunshine’s sporadic magnificence.
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo (extended through March 12, 2020; reopens June 20 – September 3, 2020)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com
For more information, visit http://www.rakugo.lol
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission