"....a magic little piece like Ko'olau."
by Russell M. Kaplan, nytheater.com
Read this article in Honolulu Advertiser!
"Ko'olau," designed and directed by Tom Lee (www.tomleeprojects.com), is an intimate and inventive puppet performance based on a now-legendary story of Hawai'i in the 1890s. The title character, Kaluaiko'olau (hereafter Ko'olau), hides with his wife and son in the Kalalau Valley of Kauai as he tries to elude the sheriff's men and escape deportation to a leper colony. The story captures both a fundamental struggle for personal freedom and the triumph of unconditional love in the most difficult circumstances. Tom Lee addresses these powerful themes with puppetry that evokes the poetry of the Hawaiian language and the natural environment of the islands. His production utilizes raw, handcarved puppets in the kuruma ningyo style (wheeled puppet theater of Japan--unusual to see in New York) and live shadow and video projection inspired by Hawaiian woodcut carving.
L to R: Yoko Myoi and Piilani puppet
Photo by David Soll
Puppeteers: Matt Acheson, Marina Celander, Frankie Cordero, Takemi Kitamura, Yoko Myoi
Live shadow projection by Miranda Hardy & Tom Lee
Costumes by Kanako Hiyama
Assistant designer Nao Otaka
This production was developed at the Rhodopi International Theater
Collective, Smolyan, Bulgaria, and the Chocolate Factory Theater, L.I.C., Queens. Generous support provided by the
Jim Henson Foundation,
The TCG/ITI Travel Grant Program and Yara Arts Group
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
La MaMa Puppet series Festival Part II
Ko'olau is part of The La MaMa Puppet Series Festival Part II, which also features multicultural works from Hawaii, Colombia and Japan. All the productions are brimming with international art forms. The series contains "Ko'olau", "Room To Panic" a new work created by Federico Restrepo and Denise Greber of LOCO7 (www.loco7.org) and the final episode in a three-part theatrical work depicting, in movement and visual theater, the experience of immigration to America, with music by Elizabeth Swados (October 4 thru 19) and "The Doll Sisters" (Ningyo Shimai), directed by Setsu Asakura, the most noted stage designer of contemporary Japan (October 23 to November 2).
Purchase two shows and receive $3 discount each show.
Or purchase all three shows and receive $5 discount each show!!
by Russell M. Kaplan
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?
Kaluaiko'olau (Ko'olau for short) depicts the modern tragedy of 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 one of 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.
The Story of Ko'olau: Love, Commitment, Sacrifice
by Lee Cataluna
In 1892, a man diagnosed with Hansen's disease - called leprosy at the time - fled to the remote mountains of Kaua'i rather than be forcibly exiled to the disease colony in Kalaupapa.
The true story of Kalua'iko'olau and his fight to die a free man has inspired books, poems and theatrical productions. It opened recently in perhaps the most well-known experimental theater in New York, the La MaMa theater.
The off-off-Broadway production of "Ko'olau" is a puppet show.
But no, not like Punch and Judy.
It is an intimate and emotionally moving performance drawn from the Japanese kuru-ma ningyo style of puppetry. The puppets are hand-carved, simple and raw, and inspired by Hawaiian design elements. The puppeteers appear on stage, holding the puppets and sometimes shaping the set with their own bodies.
The production also uses shadow projections and video images to tell the story of a man who would not leave his family, and their commitment to stay together no matter what.
Tom Lee designed and directed the production. The Mililani High graduate first heard the story of Ko'olau while visiting Kaua'i and was moved to learn more.
"When I first read about Kalua'iko'olau, I was completely blown away," Lee said via e-mail. "It is not only an intensely personal story of a love of the highest order, but also an important moment in the history of Hawai'i."
In the 1890s, Hansen's disease tore families apart. The dreaded diagnosis meant being removed from home and family and forcibly sent away to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula. There were no visits. There was no cure.
Ko'olau fled with his wife, Pi'ilani, and their young son, Kaleimanu, from their home in Kekaha, Kaua'i, into the remote Kalalau Valley. The family was pursued by a posse of law enforcement officers, and Ko'olau shot a deputy sheriff and two soldiers of the provisional government. He became an outlaw, and the family lived hidden in the valley until first the little boy and then Ko'olau died. Pi'ilani buried her son and husband, then returned home. In 1906, Pi'ilani's story, "Ka Mo'olelo 'Oia'i'o O Kalua'iko'olau," was dictated by her and written in the Hawaiian language.
The story was the inspiration for Jack London's "Koolau the Leper" and W.S. Merwin's "The Folding Cliffs."
In a media release about the production, Lee talked about the different versions of the story:
"Pi'ilani's source text is nothing like a diatribe. Instead it is a deeply moving expression of aloha. ... Her recollection is filled with a deep and mournful love for her husband and son, and the awesome power and beauty of the place that sheltered them as fugitives. Pi'ilani's story also does not focus on leprosy, but rather on the struggle of the family to survive together. Jack London's text, on the other hand, is sensationalist and ignorant. It made Ko'olau out to be a monster. ... Though the story of Ko'olau is that of a rebel, it is also the story of love, commitment and sacrifice of the highest order."
It is certainly not the type of material that would make the average person think "puppet show!" But this is not the average person's puppet show.
"Puppetry touches something very basic in people's psyche," Lee explained. "It is an ancient form of expression present in almost every culture - even in Hawai'i in the hula ki'i form. I think all types of stories can be told through puppetry, from the epic and sublime to the most silly and hilarious."
The faces of the puppets in this production are unchanging, so the emotions don't come from the puppet itself but from the way the puppeteer moves.
"There is a moment when the family is descending into Kalalau at night. The boy Kaleimanu is carried by his father, Ko'olau, and with Pi'ilani, his wife, the three struggle and climb over cliffs made of the puppeteers' own bodies," Lee said. "At the end of their journey the family huddles together, exhausted, and falls asleep. When the audience sees these small figures curled together, it is often an emotional moment because the audience has experienced the struggle of their climbing and links those feelings to the small puppets."
Tom Lee is the son of former state Rep. Sam Lee and present state Rep. Marilyn Lee. In 1991, he attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After graduation, he moved to New York to work in theater.
His first exposure to puppetry, though, was in a summer program during high school.
"I was a participant in the Special Program for Enhancement of Basic Education program at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo," Lee said. "As part of our theater studies, we performed a bunraku-style puppet show of the story of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. The SPEBE program was a huge influence on me and the other students."
Lee is in his second year as a principal puppeteer in "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera. He has performed around the world in La MaMa's touring productions, and he teaches theater and puppet design at Sarah Lawrence College.
This production of "Ko'olau" was developed at the Rhodopi International Theater in Bulgaria, and at The Chocolate Factory Theater in New York. It has financial support from The Jim Henson Foundation.
Lee says it's his dream that the production will come to Hawai'i some day. He met with theater friends at UH-Manoa and UH-Hilo during his last visit home, but no firm plans have been set.
A different version of the Kalua'iko'olau story will be produced at Kumu Kahua Theatre next spring. This one, written by UH grad student Kemuel DeMoville, is to be done in the Noh style.
"I know there have been many theatrical versions of this story," Lee says. "I hope our production could add to the body of work about this important event in the history of Hawai'i."