jakub | May 6, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Tom Lee’s Puppet Planet

Tom Lee performs in “Sounding the Resonant Path” at La MaMa in 2023. (Photo by Richard Termine)

In Tom Lee’s The Return (2015-16), shadow puppeteers at the Seoul Institute of the Arts in Korea focused their constellations, then carefully lowered the image of a helmet over the shadow-puppet head of an astronaut. Simultaneously, 7,000 miles away, at La MaMa in New York, all these elements appeared on screens via the internet. Objects from the two locations interfaced with one another in real time—although the astronaut was physically in New York, his helmet was in Seoul, the spaceship in New York, and the constellations in Seoul.

The Korean audience then watched a three-dimensional puppet walking in place, while both audiences saw it wandering through various landscapes. Meanwhile, the story fancifully invoked relativity: Approaching the speed of light, the astronaut experienced slowed-down time and so returned to earth generations after he had left. Everyone he had ever known was long dead.

Tom Lee’s work often plays at the junction between the most far out and the simply emotional. Similarly, while he is solidly rooted in Japanese traditional theatre, he also works experimentally, employing live camera feeds and original shadow devices. The results of this combination of old and new are both startling and profoundly moving. (Audiences could most recently have seen his work in New York City last November, in Sounding the Resonant Path at La MaMa, or at the Metropolitan Opera, where co-created and operated the puppets for Florencia en el Amazonas, and where is currently performing puppetry in Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly. Chicago audiences marveled at his work on the Lookingglass Theatre production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.)

Lee, who splits his time between Chicago and New York, did not start his career exploring the modern potential of traditional theatre forms. Born and raised in Hawaii, he grew up seeing Chinese opera, wayang kulit shadow puppets, dragon dances, and other Asian performances. Initially drawn to a career in the theatre as an actor, he earned a BFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon in 1996, then headed for New York, got an agent, and hit the audition circuit. He got some roles Off-Broadway and in regional theatre (and did the obligatory Law and Order episode).

Somehow, meanwhile—fortunately for us—he also became caught in the creative vortex of Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa. There he was part of a sometimes motley, often inspired cohort of actors, playwrights, directors, visual artists, musicians, puppeteers, and carpenters. Central to La MaMa’s creative activity then was its resident designer, Jun Maeda, who was on the job from 1970 until his death from Covid in 2020. To help support himself, Lee started to work for La MaMa building sets with Maeda.

“It all began with my watching Maeda-san year after year, seeing an artist like no other, who was forged at La MaMa and worked with total abandon,” Lee recalled. “He was the ultimate outsider artist: totally untrained in traditional ways and yet brilliant.”

Maeda’s non-theatre creations included, for example, exquisite translucent reverse-relief carvings of fish made from styrofoam fish-packing crates. On La MaMa’s stages, Maeda designed shows such as Andrei Serban’s iconic Trilogy and productions directed by Peter Brook, Tadeusz Kantor, and Joseph Chaikin. Inspired by Maeda, Lee began to experiment carving wood and shaping sheet metal, often creating the characters for the work of La MaMa’s puppeteers.

One day, when he was assisting the notoriously generous puppet artist Theodora Skipitares, she said, according to his recollection, “You know, Tom, you’re good at this stuff. Have you ever thought about making your own work?” By that point, he was totally primed. “Theodora lit a flame in me.” He completely switched gears. He became a puppeteer.

Tom Lee in “Hoplite Diary.”

Lee’s first original puppet work was Hoplite Diary (2004), embodying the dreams and truncated lives of ancient Greek foot soldiers. He became obsessed with the work, he said: “It was like this pent-up explosion.” For the show, he used the entire floor and stage of the giant La MaMa Annex to create a rich theatrical smorgasbord. The audience saw a sheet-metal head scroll open to reveal a soldier’s vision of sailing ships. Hoplites in projected vase-painting images fought one another (using articulated arms) until they completely broke apart. Bedraggled survivors of a battle, played by small puppets, hobbled across a 12-foot-long miniature tabletop landscape, stumbling upon dying fellow soldiers and robbing them.

After Hoplite Diary, Lee became increasingly intrigued by the 19th-century Japanese kuruma ningyo style. Unlike the much better-known bunraku theatre, which uses three puppeteers per doll, kuruma ningyo requires just one. The puppeteer sits on a wheeled cart about 9.25 inches long, 6.7 inches wide, and 8.7 inches high, with two wheels in the front and one in the back for maneuverability.  He (it is traditionally a he) connects with his puppet foot-to-foot via T-shaped toe-grips. He controls the puppet’s head and left hand with his left hand and uses the fingers of his right hand for the puppet’s right hand.

Lee got an NEA grant to study kuruma ningyo and arranged to work in Tokyo with the master of the style, Intangible Cultural Asset and fifth-generation puppeteer Koryū Nishikawa V. Lee wound up learning bunraku artistry from Nishikawa as well, but focused chiefly on kuruma ningyo. He has continued to study and work with his mentor off and on for nearly 20 years, tackling this unique form—and opening new possibilities for it.

Lee’s first major kuruma ningyo piece was Ko’olau (2008), based on a true story from Hawaii. It illustrates, he said, “the hidden costs of this paradise having been pulled open.” The historical figure Kaluaiko’olau was among the many thousands of native Hawaiians who succumbed in the late 1880s to diseases that foreigners had brought to the islands, in his case Hanson’s disease, or leprosy. Condemned to exile in what amounted to a death colony, Ko’olau shot and killed the sheriff who came to take him, then disappeared into the rich vegetation and lava-fold mountain valleys of his native Kauai. The authorities came after him with rifles and even artillery shells, but he evaded them, living off the land for three years until leprosy killed him. Eventually, his widow hiked out of the mountains and told their story.

Lee’s lush version of Ko‘olau kept to the basic style of kuruma ningyo but expanded its artistic vocabulary. Entering the theatre, audiences saw a camera with its setups arranged and ready. The show then mixed live video feeds with live puppet action. To create low-tech zooms, the camera shot broad landscapes from afar, then from closer and closer, until we saw just Ko‘olau’s little garden, from which he pulled a single carrot. The shadow image of a live actor became the sheriff, sized frighteningly larger than the half-scale kuruma ningyo characters he menaced. Toy soldiers were organized into large formations to attack Ko’olau.

In the show’s most lyrical moment, when Ko‘olau’s young son dies, his body starts to rise, then the entire scene rotates 90 degrees, so that the audience now sees it as if from above. The boy’s body continues to rise—except now it is moving horizontally toward the audience (finally turning off and disappearing). Later, when Ko‘olau’s wife undertakes the arduous journey out of their hiding place, she travels up and down mountains, which the puppeteers form with their bodies, and they help her out when she slips.

Koryū Nishikawa V in “Shank’s Mare.” (Photo by Ayumi Sakamoto)

Lee has done several additional kuruma ningyo shows. In the most traditional, Shank’s Mare, created in collaboration with Nishikawa, two stories crossed, “one moving from light to dark, the other from dark to light,” as he put it. In the first, a samurai accidentally kills his son, then deteriorates into a life of violence and crime. In the second, a tale taken from Ryūnosyke Akutagawa (best known for Rashōmon), an old astronomer and his young acolyte hover over a rudimentary telescope, seeking enlightenment about the universe. In a departure from Japanese social norms of the period, Lee made the ancient astronomer’s disciple a girl. “My daughters were very young at the time,” Lee explained, “and it just seemed right to me to have the young medieval astronomer be female.” Lee and Koryū-san followed Shank’s Mare with a second show based on the work of Akutagawa.

Lee’s most recent kuruma ningyo was dedicated to the memory of Jun Maeda. Sounding the Resonant Path (seen at La MaMa in November 2023) featured a puppet woodsman who chopped logs and carved a puppet head onstage. Then this little artist raised his art to the second mathematical power: He created a puppet that was manipulated by another puppet, something likely never attempted before in kuruma ningyo. Meanwhile a spaceship from earth explored our solar system. Periodic sequences of shadow images depicted evolution from simple plants to a human fetus to a forest of animals. To create these images, Lee at times layered pictures on multiple glass sheets in the manner of the 20th-century shadow-film artist Lotte Reiniger. But while Reiniger did stop-motion filming, moving her images a hair between shots, Lee moved elements during live feeds, creating a live action shadow-puppet film. Was all this shadow action we saw happening on Earth? Was the whole show taking place somewhere else in the universe? Lee left us tantalizingly in the dark.

Lee also sometimes designs or manipulates puppets for other artists, including performing in Handspring’s Puppet Company’s spine-bending production of War Horse on Broadway in 2011. One of his ongoing gigs is at the Metropolitan Opera: In the current Met production of Madama Butterfly, the heroine Cio-Cio-San’s young son, normally played by a (silent) child, is played by a bunraku puppet. Lee has been one of his animators since the beginning of Anthony Minghella’s Butterfly—nearly 17 years now. Lee said he loves working in opera, where the talent is so honed and perfected and the beauty of the voices is simply transcendent—and where the sheer vocal power of the singers, he said, makes his ribcage vibrate.

Lee and his friend Blair Thomas also co-founded the Chicago Puppet Studio, which designs and builds puppets for other artists around the country. Among their recent creations was the menagerie of river critters and birds for Florencia en el Amazonas at the Met. Lee again puppeteered. Director Mary Zimmerman worked closely with Lee and Thomas to conceive the show’s many varieties of puppet creatures, including glitter-spangled dolphins manipulated atop two sticks, shiny fish hung from handles almost like purses, glum iguanas with articulated mouths, gloriously colorful full-body-puppet birds, and a mischievous marionette monkey. These fanciful beasts were all based on real ones: There are pink dolphins in the waters of the Amazon River (and nowhere else), though the real ones don’t feature glitter. Rainbow-colored birds do dance down from the trees. And there are iguanas—and, yes, they might appear on dinner plates.

What’s next? The lure of the Amazon kept Tom Lee temporarily tethered to Earth for Florencia, but he has talked about continuing to work on Eden, based on a sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem set on an extraterrestrial planet, which he began as a short film during the pandemic. He is also planning to adapt a sci-fi novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, set on a planet with ambigendered ETs. Closer to home—in this case, Japan—Lee and Nishikawa are discussing a new collaboration, possibly adapting something by Ryūnosyke Akutagawa or something from the classical Japanese repertory.

Puppet planet? More like a whole puppet solar system.

Eileen Blumenthal is professor of Theater Arts at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She co-wrote Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire with Julie Taymor and is the author of Puppetry: A World History.

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