Metro Weekly

‘Postcards from Ihatov’ is an Amusing, Escapist Adventure (Review)

Bold ingenuity drives 1st Stage's "Postcards from Ihatov," a transporting visual play that doesn't fully gel.

Postcards from Ihatov - Photo: Teresa Castracane
Postcards from Ihatov – Photo: Teresa Castracane

Adapting the works of early 20th-century Japanese writer and farmer Kenji Miyazawa into an amusing, escapist adventure, 1st Stage’s Postcards from Ihatov feels assured in its design and craftsmanship.

Created and directed by multi-faceted visual theater artist Natsu Onoda Power, the world-premiere production skillfully blends music, poetry, puppetry, calligraphy, cutout animation, and, of course, drama to explore Iwatov, the imaginary universe where most of Miyazawa’s stories take place.

The writer, known for his classic fantasy novel Night on the Galactic Railroad, named this fictional plane, filled with philosophical kids and talking animals who express deep inner lives, after his beloved hometown of Iwate.

And, according to the be-whiskered professor (Matthew Vaky), who teaches lessons on Miyazawa to the play’s protagonist, an Unknown Author (Matthew Marcus), Miyazawa is still recognized as a favorite son of Iwate.

The author’s affinity for home is reflected in his fiction, in the persistent images of the alder trees and fields of pampas grasses that characterize the Iwate landscape. Power reflects that landscape in her textured scenic design, which also features a front scrim curtain upon which pages of Miyazawa’s writing are projected. The production boasts layer after layer of such texture and detail.

Projected onto a different screen, mounted upstage, scenes of cutout animation depict a Miyazawa children’s story. Three performers — 1st Stage regulars Ethan J. Miller, Jacob Yeh, and Pauline Lamb — create the live animation through puppetry, moving paper cutouts across vivid backgrounds. They also adroitly mimic camerawork by raising and lowering the cutouts under the camera.

Confined to a modest room at the side of the stage, the trio look like tinkerers in the author’s brain, spontaneously conjuring a story, to the steady beat of offstage drums. They introduce tales, and also, on occasion, leave their little room to take on a role in the drama, joining Marcus, Vaky, and sixth ensemble member Deidra Lawan Starnes.

Miller wields a fun physicality playing a cuckoo bird who wants to improve his singing, and Yeh especially delights in scenes from a fable about a scorpion and weasel, capturing the just-right mock-serious tone when the scorpion has to plead his case. Vaky’s professor — an expert on Miyazawa and “meows-icology,” who resembles and behaves like a cat, and might be a cat, but insists he is not a cat — is always a laugh.

The stories themselves are charming, too, populated by Ihatov eccentrics like a drumming tanuki (or Japanese raccoon) carrying a bottle of sake, and the deer who contemplates a hand towel dropped by a farmer in the grass. On the Galactic Railroad, we meet a birdcatcher who offers pressed swan and goose to eat.

In Postcards from Ihatov, audiences (especially young ones) might discover a remarkable fantasy world they’ll want to eagerly dive into once they leave the theater. The show, fundamentally, will lead some interested readers to Miyazawa and his stories, dominated by fanciful characters contemplating loss and existence.

But, what, other than the reference, and the momentary delight of living in his tales, does Power want to convey through compiling these pieces of stories? As a whole, the play entertains but doesn’t convey an express purpose behind the odyssey to Miyazawa’s creative consciousness.

Postcards from Ihatov (★★★☆☆) runs through June 23 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, Va. Tickets are $25 to $55. Call 703-854-1856, or visit

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