Performed by Katsura Shunshine
Off Broadway, Solo Storytelling
Runs through 1.4.20
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street
by Ran Xia on 10.5.19
Katsura Sunshine in Katsura Sunshine's Rakugo. Photo by Photographer Name.
BOTTOM LINE: Katsura Sunshine brings to NYC an ancient form of storytelling theatre from Japan, after making a second home there 21 years ago.
The kanji of Rakugo reads as 落语, which literally translate to “falling words” (perks of being a native Chinese speaker), so without any preconceived notion of what Rakugo exactly is, I’ve formed a romantic image in my mind: words, falling like cherry blossom. Doesn’t that seem a bit too poetic for something that’s supposed to be funny? A quick Google session reveals that Rakugo is a traditional form of storytelling that originated in Buddhist temples, where monks would tell comedic stories to lighten the mood before sermons. 400 years later, it finally finds its footing in North America.
Once upon a time, a young Canadian decided to take a quick trip to Japan to “check out” some kabuki theatre. The next thing you know, his quick jaunt turned into 21 years, and he was reborn as Katsura Sunshine, the only western performer of Rakugo. In his performance, Sunshine describes in great, humorous detail his grueling (but absolutely necessary) apprenticeship under his master. For 3 years, it was “like karate kid” is one of the many tidbits he shares with the audience. Indeed, the performance of Raguko, not dissimilar to standup comedy, relies quite a bit on the storyteller forming intimate relationships with the audience, in part through self-deprecating humor, among other things.
It’s almost impossible to dislike Katsura Sunshine, whose presence is immediately disarming and captivating. It can be difficult for a solo performer to sustain every single audience member’s attention, but somehow he manages it with ease. Like many things Japanese, the aesthetics of the performance are simple and elegant. Only two props are used: a fan and a hand towel, both of which transform into a million different objects in the storyteller’s hands.
To talk about the content of the show would probably spoil it (and there are different stories each month in any case). But essentially, a Rakugo storytellier shares various humorous stories filled with entertaining details, some fictional, some truthful, from his own personal life. So without giving away too much, Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo gives you a taste of some traditional Japanese Rakugo stories, as well as Sunshine's life as a Canadian in Japan and his journey of becoming a Rakugo master. All this is served up in 80 minutes of non-stop laughter.
If you question whether the funny would get lost between different cultures, rest assured because here, humor is quite the universal language and laughter never needs translation. And if Rakugo is a theatrical form of specific Japanese origin, the general concept of storytelling is probably the oldest known form of entertainment. There are many theatrical events in NYC, but I believe this one should not get buried under the wealth of options. It you’re looking for an evening of pure, unburdened laughter, one with a side of cultural learning, Katsura Sunshine might be just the man you’re looking for.
(Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo plays at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, through January 4, 2020. The running time is 80 minutes. Performances are Thursdays and Saturdays at 8. Tickets are $51 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. There are different stories each month—for more information visit rakugo.lol.)
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo is performed by Katsura Sunshine. Set Design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. Lighting Design by Ayumu Poe Saegusa. Presented by Steven Honigman and Joe Trentacosta in association with Yumi Shinozaki and The Yoshimoto Creative Agency of Japan.