Life journeys explored through exquisite puppetry

‘Shank’s Mare’ glides into Maui next weekend for one show

Master puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa V (first photo) and Tom Lee along with the Yara Arts Group present their collaboration, “Shank’s Mare,” which features a score on hammered dulcimer, shamisen and flute. Performance is 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. Tickets range from $12 to $55 with 10 percent discounts for MACC members and 1/2 price for kids under 12 (plus applicable fees). For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or go to • Ayumi Sakamoto photo

Last Saturday at the Kahului Public Library, fifth-generation master puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa V presented a free workshop of his family’s Kuruma Ningyo style of puppetry — a 160-year-old form related to the traditional Bunraku three-person style.

Joining Nishikawa was puppeteer Tom Lee, who is originally from Mililani, Oahu, and who has appeared in the Tony Award-winning “War Horse” on Broadway and “Madame Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. The duo present their exquisite collaborative production “Shank’s Mare,” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Castle Theater at Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Kahului.

I interviewed Lee last week and he shared that they would continue their workshops this week at Parley Kanaka’ole gymnasium in Hana on Friday, followed by visits to the Lanai School gymnasium on Monday and the Molokai High School cafeteria on Wednesday. All three workshops begin at 6:30 p.m. and are free to the public.

I asked Lee what the title of the show means.

” ‘Shank’s Mare’ refers to traveling by foot, or to go walking. In the play there are two journeys, both journeys of life,” explained Lee. “It is also a reference to a 19th-century Japanese story (known as “Tokaidochu Hizakurige“).”

Hoku Pavao-Jones (from left), Ricky Jones and Francis Tau‘a bring the true story of “The Elephant Man” to ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. • Jack Grace photo

Lee first traveled to Japan to study scenic design and Japanese puppetry on a National Endowment of the Arts grant in 2005. He recalled his first meeting with Nishikawa as “life changing.”

“It had a tremendous impact on my life. He let me into his home studio in Hachioji and he encouraged me and mentored me. I went back many times to study with him,” Lee shared. “I had met his brother first, in Osaka at the National Bunraku Theatre. He said ‘you have to meet my brother.’ Koruyo-san had this huge workshop for kids in the day and at night I watched him perform at his theater.”

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo is Nishikawa’s theater company founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1872, the creator of Kuruma Ningyo, which refers to a puppetry technique that translates to “cart puppet.” In this style, the puppeteer is seated on a small rolling cart with the puppet’s feet attached to their own allowing the puppets to walk, roll and even stomp across the stage easily as the solo puppeteer controls their arms and face without the need of assistance.

“I started just like a little kid in those workshops,” said Lee. “I had no idea this form even existed at the time. He told me, ‘I am a traditional artist and I have to preserve this family tradition. You have the freedom to develop your own style and work.’ “

Twelve years after Lee began his studies, he asked Nishikawa to collaborate with him on “Shank’s Mare,” and the grandmaster agreed.

“Artists like Koruyo-san are disappearing and we should find a way of honoring what they do while also making new work.”

The play, described by Lee as “a puppet road movie,” has two individual plots. One of an elderly astronomer and his daughter who travel a great distance to witness a cosmic phenomenon before he dies and the second is a traditional folk tale of a samurai. I asked Lee if the collaboration was that he developed one story and Nishikawa the other.

“Absolutely,” said Lee. “There is a link of the traditional with the modern connected through two interweaving plots of two men nearing the end of their lives. One is the astronomer and the girl looking for a gigantic comet, and (the second) a folk tale from the early 20th-century set in medieval Japan of a samurai who falls from grace. He eventually becomes a thief and murderer.”

The 2011 “War Horse” production that Lee performed in featured multiple magnificent creations by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, most notably a life- sized horse.

“Handspring puppets are amazing and it was an amazing experience. Truly a dream come true,” shared Lee.

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, Lee’s original pursuit was acting, but in time he developed a passion for artistic design and the desire to create his own shows.

“I came to New York after college to work as an actor, but I also worked as a carpenter, electrician and theater technician at La MaMa’s (La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club). It was there that I first saw puppetry at a high level and it blew my mind. I was assisting an artist and he said, ‘hey, you’re pretty good at this.’ I saw how creating, performing and artistry merged together in puppetry.”

Lee not only designed and built many of the puppets in “Shank’s Mare,” but also its contemporary style that Nishikawa had encouraged. In the show there is a miniature set in which the puppets can interact. It is then filmed live and rear-projected at the same time, creating multiple settings of the two journeys.

“What happens is that people are able to connect a video projection with something tangible,” he said.

Lee is excited to bring “Shank’s Mare” to his home state, and equally enthused to interact with Hawaii’s youth.

“Students will come to the theater on the day of our performance in addition to our touring of public libraries and schools. I wanted to bring this work to Hawaii, my home, and we’ll be able to go to five islands,” said Lee. “This is something young people might never have the chance to experience outside of Japan, and I want the community and the audiences to be able to touch these creations and experience this art up-close.”

This weekend

ProArts Playhouse in Kihei presents “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, directed by Sally Sefton-Johnston. Inspired by a true story, John Merrick (Ricky Jones) is a man living with horrifying rare skin and bone diseases. A freak-show performer living in a condition bordering on squalor, Merrick’s life forever changes when Dr. Frederick Treves (Francis Tau’a) agrees to care for him.

* Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays (no performance Oct. 1) beginning Friday through Oct. 8. Tickets are $26. For more information or to purchase tickets for any ProArts event, call 463-6550 or visit


Maui OnStage presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “Harvey” by Mary Chase, directed by Dale Button. Elwood P. Dowd is a good-natured eccentric who is a regular fixture at his neighborhood tavern. He doesn’t cause any real trouble, except for his insistence in including his friend Harvey, an imaginary six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall white rabbit. When Elwood begins introducing Harvey around town, his humiliated sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae decide to commit him to a sanitarium.

* Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays opening Sept. 29 through Oct.15 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. Tickets range from $20 to $40. To purchase tickets for any Iao Theater event call 242-6969 or order online at


ProArts Playhouse will be holding auditions for “My Three Angels” by Samuel and Bella Spewack from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Playhouse in Azeka Place-Makai. Roles for seven men and three women are open, and actors should be prepared to cold-read from the script.

In French Guiana on Christmas Day, three convicts are employed as roofers at Ducotel’s General Store. The roof winds up being the least of the Ducotel family’s trouble. On their way from France is an evil-minded cousin and his cold-blooded nephew, who earlier jilted the Ducotel’s daughter for an heiress. Possessing every criminal art and penal grace, the unlikely “Three Angels” set matters right in this comedic holiday classic.

Performances of “My Three Angels,” directed by Francis Tau’a, will run weekends Dec. 1 through 17. To schedule an audition appointment call 463-0550. For more information about the show or the theater, visit