COURTESY OF HTY
"Winnie-the-Pooh" actors double as puppeteers in Japanese bunraku style. Emily Tam, Junior Tesoro, Chi Ho Law and Cynthia See star. The production by Honolulu Theatre for Youth runs through Oct. 29.
Japanese puppet form animates ‘Pooh’
Giant stuffed animals may appear to be the focus of Honolulu Theatre for Youth's production of "Winnie-the-Pooh." But the theatrics run much deeper that that.
Honolulu Theatre for Youth presents "Winnie-the-Pooh"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; continues 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 29
Where: Tenney Theater, St. Andrew's Cathedral
Admission: $16 adults; $8 for children under 18 and seniors over 60
Eric Johnson, HTY's new artistic director, and set designer Michael Harada decided to incorporate bunraku, a form of Japanese puppetry where master puppeteers, who are visible to the audience, control large puppets while a narrator tells the story. The actors traditionally dress completely in black with their faces covered.
But in order to maintain a kid-friendly production, the HTY actors' faces will remain unmasked. "Our cast was not large enough for traditional bunraku," said Harada. So they took the genre and created a cultural fusion, using the parts that would work with the play.
"The bunraku technique is a perfect convention for illustrating the liquid nature of a child's imagination. As actors become puppeteers and then actors again, we see a new interpretation of storytelling dancing on the line of realism and imagination, just as a child would," Johnson said.
The actors will bring the large handcrafted puppets to life, including Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Owl. Being the furthest away from the popular Disney animated characters, the puppets created by Harada and costume designer Casey Cameron were inspired by the original pen and ink drawings by Ernest H. Shepard, as well as an actual photo of author A.A. Milne's son's stuffed animals.
Johnson was especially struck by the idea that Christopher Robin is larger than life in the original Pooh texts. "He towers over the animals and their adventures. I wanted to honor the scale," he said. "Children can relate to a stuffed animal that is so important to them. It is a lovely time when parents and children can connect to a story," he said, noting that this is probably why the Pooh stories are classics.
"The performance is geared towards younger children. But they are simple stories with great wisdom that anyone can enjoy."
HARADA AND his wife have worked on masks and puppets for more than 10 years. "It is challenging, to say the least," he said. Adding the element of puppetry to the HTY production created another layer to work through, he explained. "The actors use their body as a tool. They are fluent at expressing emotion. With a puppet, they need to channel all energy into the inanimate object. It is a whole different discipline." Fortunately, he said, the company actors were quick learners. After some tweaking, and even major redesign and reconstruction of the puppets, the performance is coming together.
The play features Emily Tam as Piglet, Junior Tesoro as Pooh, Chi Ho Law as Christopher Robin and Cynthia See as Eeyore. The actors will also play multiple other roles.
Oftentimes, several actors are working with one puppet, explained Johnson, especially during such magical moments as when Pooh floats into the air with the assistance of an umbrella.
Harada hopes the performance strikes a chord with both children and adults. "We are told to stop being a child and to grow up. It is good in one sense, and destructive in another. We lose our imagination," he said. "Our culture does not encourage us to daydream. We are so serious about practical matters, married to the realism of our world.
"We hope that kids go home and grab some household items and let their imagination run wild. We hope it reignites the simple activity of picking up an inanimate object and interjecting it with life," Harada said.
Johnson added, "We also want parents to reunite with that sense of wonderment and magic."