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Visiting director brings Japanese tale to American audiences in The Tale of Tsuru

When a painter loses his ability to paint, it feels like the only thing left to do is die. And while this extremist point of view may not be that popular anymore, it is certainly one of the leading themes in The Tale of Tsuru.

A tsuru is a Japanese name for a crane, a magical bird that sometimes takes the form of a beautiful woman.

This woman always leaves behind a beautiful cloth she wove of her own feathers. The cloth symbolizes the kinship of the spirits between the bird and the human for whom she leaves it.

The Tale of Tsuru is a story where the lives of a crane, a painter, a princess and many others come together to form a beautiful folk tale with lessons of love, truth and greed.

A peasant painter, Yasuhide (Jack Hallaway), who goes to the capital to learn and perfect his skill, falls in love with the princess Sakaki-no-mae (Tara Moore). They elope back to his village, but on their way there they are discovered by Sakaki’s court lady. They are separated, but a crane that has been watching over Yasuhide reunites him with his love, but takes away his ability to paint. Eventually the plot thickens, when the magic begins to show itself.

The story, originally a Japanese tale, was adapted for a play by Michiko Kondo. It was later rewritten to be the version it currently is by Allison Williams, the co-director of the play.

“I originally saw the play in Japanese at an international high school theater festival,” Williams said. “It was so visually beautiful (that) I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to get more into that world.”

The version Williams saw only had a paper crane and a tangle of wire representing a marsh.

In the TheatreUSF production, the set design is much more elaborate, with scrolls of white paper, bamboo stalks in the background, and a house door, all of which move in and out of the scene depending on whether they are needed.

“The story of the crane is as typical and popular in Japan as the story of Cinderella is to us,” Williams said. “The Japanese know it very well, and it always ends the same way. When (Michiko) Kondo wrote it, she put in secondary plots and twists that made it exciting for Japanese audiences but more confusing for American audiences.”

Williams, who does not speak Japanese, had the play translated into English.

“Finally I knew what was going on (exactly),” she said. “When I first saw it, I was getting a little bit of what was going on, but I knew that something magical happens.

Williams wanted to know more about the play. When she read the translation she understood what she was missing before.

Two years ago, Williams wrote the first draft of the play. “I added five or six new scenes and two new characters,” she said.

The Tale of Tsuru is a work in progress. It is constantly changing.

“The play is cast with 15 actors, but it can be cast with as little as 12,” Williams said. “In this audition we had so many talented people (that we) undoubled some of the parts.”

Doubling is a technique where one actor plays two parts. For this version of the play, Williams actually rewrote some of the parts that were doubled, so that they are both in the same scene.

“From now on, it’s going to have to stay like that,” she said.

Williams is directing the play alongside her husband and partner, Todd Espeland. The couple has worked together teaching workshops about physical theater, masks and circus.

They are now living in Michigan and have been hired by the university to direct and produce the play. Williams, who grew up in St. Petersburg, has previously talked to TheatreUSF, but she and Espeland were not hired until now.

The Tale of Tsuru is told from the perspective of cherry-tree spirits. They guide the audience through the story and sometimes become the characters. When that occurs, the tree spirits wear masks.

“The masks are completely different elements,” Regina Smith, who plays one of the tree spirits and Kaede (a town woman), said. “You have no peripheral vision and you have to make sharp movements with your head. Even when you’re not talking our mouth has to be open.”

“Because of the masks, our whole body must make movements,” Samantha Cataline, who plays Matsugae, said. “We use half masks, so we must use our mouth all the time.”

Espeland says the masks help the actors find out their range of movement.

“They discover what their physical range is,” he said. “To make a mask live you have to support it with movement. You can make it seem real through the use of voice and body.”

Williams and Espeland said they are happy to work in this theater department.

“USF is very technically proficient,” Williams said.

“This is as complex as a play gets without being a musical. We have things that move and fly. There are also very complex lighting systems, like the projections on the back screen and the decorations.”

They are also very pleased with the work of the actors.

“The actors we have are stronger (than ever before),” Espeland said.

Williams agrees.

“(The actors) are genuinely grateful and glad to be in the show,” she said.

The Tale of Tsuru, opening at Theatre I today, is bringing in audiences from as far as Korea — one of the cast members’ parents is coming all the way from Asia just to see it. This tale of magic, love and truth is that enchanting.

The Tale of Tsuru runs through April 12 in Theatre 1.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors and are available at the Theatre 1 box office.

Contact Olga Robak at