In 2008, Philadelphia dancer Makoto Hirano formed a company called Team Sunshine Performance Corporation with actor Benjamin Camp and director Alex Torra . For a year and a half, the three have been working on JapanAmerica Wonderwave, which premiered Thursday at Christ Church Neighborhood House.
Fans of Thaddeus Phillips' work may remember Hirano as part of the cast of 2011's Whale Optics, but in JapanAmerica Wonderwave he is the dominant spirit, with Camp as a supportive foil, in an examination of how we process distant tragic events and assimilate them into daily life. The ingeniously interactive and cartoonish set by Oona Curley keeps both these engaging performers busy opening shutters, pulling tables out of the wall, or dropping down Murphy-bed-like benches to sit on.
They keep their attempt to deal with recent tragedies - man-made and natural - lightly humorous, while allowing pensive moments to acknowledge suffering and grief.
Hearing the word "wonderwave" in the same title with "Japan," you know the recent devastating tsunami will come into play. And it does, as unlikely America's Got Talent hero Charlie (Hirano), who can't dance (although his crazy cross-ankled moves are hilarious and dancey) somehow wins second place on the show taking place March 11, 2011, the day the tsunami struck.
Wonderwave's three characters - Charlie, Ben, and Makoto - are played or danced alternately by four actors; Kristel Baldoz and Jenna Horton are "stand-ins" who exchange nametags with Camp and Hirano so we always know who everyone is, sort of.
A narration tells us Makoto's parents live in Chicago, but the rest of his family is in Japan. Charlie and Ben, wondering what the tragedy must look like, "re-enact" it with tiny sponge houses on a tilted table. Of course, they float mournfully away once Ben pours water on the table.
But that water is recycled to bless Makoto in a baptism that symbolizes rebirth. So, as Team Sunshine's name implies, they are touchingly optimistic about humanity, what we endure, what we survive, how we grieve, and how we care for each other.
A special performance by Kate Watson Wallace of anonymous bodies with Christopher Sean Powell opens the show.