The art of kamishibai - a Japanese form of ‘paper play’ in which tales are told with illustrated slides drawn one by one through a central frame both physical and fictional - is one unlikely to find much representation at the Fringe and certainly unlikely to be better represented than it is by Jemma Kahn’s The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults. Having studied under a veteran of the form, Rokuda Genji, Kahn presents a work that is impressive in its mixture of the comical with the comic-strip, the classic with the contemporary.
Presenting a series of seven stories, the scope of Kahn’s collection spans from classically fabular forms to riffs upon the most poppy strains of contemporary culture. Proverbial pieces on fishermen and philosophers are juxtaposed with less proselytising, silly segments on the dream-life of cats, YouTube sensations and the existential agony of Super Mario characters. Kahn’s anthology of wonders is a treasure because it refuses to buy into any sense of preciousness, venerability or orientalism – her pastiches feel loving and honest rather than satirical or stilted. Knitting together such a diversity of style likewise knits the storyteller to her audience - her passion for the form made palpable.
Technically, too, The Epicene Butcher is a treat. The relatively static nature of performance mandated by the kamishibai form – with its single small frame placed centre-stage – is counteracted by a fabulous set strewn with lanterns, crates and waving kitty-cats. Junctures between tales raise pace and movement, with sudden cuts of Japanese guitar music slamming out of speakers, whilst Kahn smashes sticks together and collects her next scene. Even more arrestingly, Kahn’s silent schoolgirl sidekick – the fantastically masticating, slack-jawed Chalk Girl - drags a blackboard centre stage, scrawls a subheading for each story and slinks off lethargically once more.
Above all, however, it is Kahn’s vocal mastery that truly animates these sketched-out stills. Her performance is unfaltering - from the perfectly pitched whimpers and wails of Mario’s purple prose to the cackling hysteria of a hentai call girl (polished off with a party popper at the story’s climax) to the final fortissimo revelation of the epicene butcher - delivered with such glorious gusto at the story’s end that it still resounds in my ears as I write. Ironically, one of the primary pleasures of encountering this nominally visual form is the aural accompaniment it necessitates. Kahn is a wonder to behold.
With each element of the show tackled with alacrity and élan, the only part that proves problematic is a structural quibble. The repetition necessary to spin out these short stories into an hour-long entertainment for the Fringe means that the show is somewhat structurally monotonous; simply moving from tale to tale to time’s-up gives the show no arc or symmetry. This structural sore point is compounded somewhat by the selection of Kahn’s aforementioned fishy fable - almost ironically the driest of the lot - as an opener; the audience is wrong-footed into an underestimation of Kahn’s show.
Despite this little issue, The Epicene Butcher still remains a brilliant piece: Any hesitancies to be had at the beginning are soon removed by Kahn’s expert performance - sliding away as slickly as her captivating sketches.