nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
September 21, 2008
Why is it we go to the theatre? To be moved, educated, inspired? For jaded theatergoers like me these experiences become increasingly rare. And then we occasionally stumble on a magic little piece like Ko'olau. A puppet show that treats the adults and kids in the audience with equal maturity, it's a simple story told with heart, patience, and boundless imagination. What more can we ask of theatre, at any age?
Ko'olau depicts the modern tragedy of Kaluaiko'olau (Ko'olau for short), a Hawaiian cowboy in 1892 who learns that he and his son have contracted leprosy. Rather than be exiled and separated from his family, he secretly moves them all to the remote valley of Kalalau, where they exist peacefully until authorities arrive to arrest him. Ko'olau shoots and kills his potential abductors, and the family continues their hiding until both Ko'olau and his son succumb to the disease. His wife buries them both in secret and returns to her home, eventually relaying her story to an American journalist.
Don't let the depressing story fool you, however. For while the events are truly tragic, the sadness is minimized to focus on the family's love for one another, and their communion with their wilderness home.This is thanks to a brilliant storytelling approach which is rooted in traditional puppetry, but employs a vast array of unpredictable techniques that keep us transfixed throughout. Foremost among these is an absolutely mesmerizing projection design, easily the best I have ever seen. Controlled live by two projectionists on old-fashioned overheads from the lip of the stage, they continuously layer together manipulated shadow-puppets and a live video feed to create a world that envelops us completely and is constantly evolving and adding depth to the story. Plus, while there is extensive use of modern technology, it never feels high-tech, merely supporting the folk-art feel of the imagery and facilitating the musical flow of the imagery.
The music is also used to maximum effect, with a simple and sensitive score performed live by composers Bill Ruyle (koto) and Yukio Tsuji (percussion, keyboard, wood flute, guitar). It's atmospheric without being annoyingly New-Agey, and always supports the onstage action without hitting us over the head.
And it would certainly be wrong not to mention the fine puppeteering, the true cornerstone of the piece. Ko'olau and his family are portrayed by expressionless wooden-headed dolls, who are manipulated with an entirely hand-held technique (no strings or sticks). Even lacking the chance for any facial variety, the puppets nonetheless reflect some remarkably subtle emotion. The peripheral characters are depicted through imaginatively abstract means (floating hats, silhouettes, or the puppeteers themselves) to further enhance the feeling of the family's isolation.
While my knowledge of puppet theatre is not the most extensive (and I certainly now plan to change that), it's hard not to imagine that director/designer Tom Lee is anything less than a major influence in his community, as he deftly bridges so many disparate elements in one simple piece: children and adult audiences, sadness and happiness, folk art and technology, and most impressively the complexities and simplicity of human emotion. Really he's a model storyteller for artists in any genre, and a master entertainer for those of you looking for an afternoon or evening's diversion that will stay with you for a long time.