Inclusion lends ‘Mountain’s’ folktale extra magic, synergy at Synchronicity

Last performed in 2014, "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" has returned to Synchronicity Theatre with a more inclusive cast including (from left) Kevin Huang Qian and Charlene Hong White.

Credit: Photos by Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Photos by Casey Gardner Ford

Last performed in 2014, "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" has returned to Synchronicity Theatre with a more inclusive cast including (from left) Kevin Huang Qian and Charlene Hong White.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Stories are the foundation of any community, whether presented on a stage or told with wonder to a wide-eyed child. The way these stories interact and the lessons that we draw from them are at the heart of “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” a children’s novel by Grace Lin adapted for stage by Jeannine Coulombe. The graceful and lively adaptation runs at Synchronicity Theatre through Feb. 18.

Lin’s story focuses on Minli, a 10-year-old girl living at the base of Fruitless Mountain in China. Precocious, good-hearted and inquisitive, Minli delights in hearing the stories that her father tells her about dragons and fortune tellers (depicted for the audience by a superb ensemble of gifted actors). Minli’s mother, however, believes her husband’s stories to be useless nonsense — she is unable to focus on anything other than their poor circumstances. Seeking to alleviate her family’s burdens, Minli goes on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon, who, as legend has it, can answer any question asked of him.

The story is fairly straightforward — a young girl going on a journey to change her fortune and help her family is hardly inventive. It’s how the story is crafted that gives it such interesting architecture. The tales Minli hears from her father serve as the inspiration for her quest, but they are also an integral part of the narrative experience. They form the circumstances that Minli’s family inhabit, intersecting with the events of the play in such a way that it blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Stories become a constant material and emotional presence for the characters as well as the audience.


Charlene Hong White performs in a show highlighted by beautifully designed masks, courtesy of designer Mike Hickey, Naomi B. Smith’s prop design and Sophie Hansuh Im’s set design.

Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

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Credit: Photo by Casey Gardner Ford

Such metatextual themes may go over the heads of the younger audiences — or perhaps not; children are often smarter than for which we give them credit. Regardless, it’s a good thing this lofty production also happens to be ruthlessly charming and entertaining. Director Justin Anderson, with the help of Assistant Director Frances Chang, rallies a talented and enthusiastic cast who commit themselves fully to the heightened nature of folktales.

“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” is a decidedly physical production. Synchronicity partnered with the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company to great effect. Though much credit must go to the individual performers, many artful with their movements, particularly Willie Frierson Jr. and Toru Shimoji for an exciting martial arts scene. Crystal Lo also shows off some impressive comedic chops as a cruel magistrate in one of the many stories-within-the-story, benefiting from hilarious chemistry with Chris Hecke. She and Kevin Qian also shine in a later scene where they get to play a dynamic duo.

As Minli’s parents, referred to only as Ba and Ma, Toru Shimoji and Charlene Hong White are more subdued. Being that they represent the material reality that Minli inhabits, it makes sense that they would be more grounded than fantastical. The couple forms the emotional bedrock of the story, particularly White, whose arc is perhaps the most dynamic and tenderly performed.

Meanwhile, Kristina Jin plays Minli with an irrepressible earnestness. The script works by using all of the heightened theatrical elements to highlight her journey, and, while there are some moments in Jin’s performance that become a bit one-note, she hits all of the important beats with heartwarming sincerity.

There are echoes of traditional Chinese performance (and possibly more Western styles like commedia) in how well the actors act in their beautifully designed masks, courtesy of mask designer Mike Hickey. Naomi B. Smith further enhances the show’s theatricality with her eye-catching prop design. Everything looks gorgeous, especially surrounded by Sophie Hansuh Im’s simple yet lovely set, Jonida Beqo Vogli’s eye-catching costumes and Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting. Cooper also contributes some shadow puppetry, which provides some of the production’s most visually interesting and amusing moments.

This is not the first time that Synchronicity has produced this adaptation. The production is technically a remount of a production from 2013, which featured a primarily white cast and creative team. Justin Anderson addresses this in his program notes, referring to the creative process as a “dismantling” rather than a simple remount. The effort toward greater inclusion and authenticity is clear, with every element of the production dialed into what the script needs and creating a palpable sense of synergy.


THEATER REVIEW

“Mountain Meets the Moon”

Presented by Synchronicity Theatre through Feb. 18. 1545 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. Adults, $30-$45; $15 children 3 and up. 404-484-8636, synchrotheatre.com

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Luke Evans is an Atlanta-based writer, critic and dramaturg. He covers theater for ArtsATL and Broadway World Atlanta and has worked with theaters such as the Alliance, Actor’s Express, Out Front Theatre and Woodstock Arts. He’s a graduate of Oglethorpe University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Houston, where he earned his master’s.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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