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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 5, 2010

Kauai tale told by puppets

By Lee Cataluna


7:30 tonight

Paliku Theatre

Other shows: Sunday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Wednesday at UH-Hilo and Friday at Kahilu Theatre in Waimea.


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There wasn't a whisper or a wiggle in the audience of fourth- and fifth-graders. The Waiau Elementary students were rapt. Even the kids working in the cafeteria that day came out of the kitchen in hairnets and aprons to catch just a glimpse of the performance.

Tom Lee opened his puppet play "Ko'olau" in New York in 2007. The show next played at La MaMa Experimental Theater in 2008. It was his dream to bring the show to Hawai'i.

His tour of the islands began last week on Kaua'i, where the true story of Ko'olau took place.

"It's a story of deep aloha," Lee tells his elementary school audience. "It's a story of a man who tried to keep his family together."

Ko'olau lived on the west side of Kaua'i with his wife and young son. In 1892, he was diagnosed with Hansen's disease, but rather than be forcibly exiled to Kalaupapa, Ko'olau fled to Kaua'i's remote Kalalau Valley with his family. It is a tragic story, but also a very beautiful one, and in this performance, it is told through puppetry.

There are just four puppeteers handling very simple bunraku-style puppets, and two musicians, one playing a dulcimer, the other a drum and bamboo flute.

To show Ko'olau riding a horse, a puppeteer places the puppet on his forearms and his hands become the horse's head. When Ko'olau, his wife and son climb the cliffs surrounding Kalalau, the puppeteers' bodies become the mountains. The kids helped set the scene by making the sound of rain with their hands.

Lee graduated from Mililani High School. As a teen, a summer theater program gave him his introduction to puppetry. He has traveled the world studying, performing and teaching puppetry. This is his first time bringing his show to Hawai'i.

In Waiau, a group of kids who had to leave early walked out the door backward to catch every little bit of the performance. On Kaua'i, people cried during the show. After one of the Kaua'i performances, a teacher brought a young girl to meet the performers. The teacher explained that the child was blind, and although she enjoyed hearing the performance, she wanted to ask if she could feel the puppets' faces.

"It's an amazing thing," Lee says, explaining how such simple puppets evoke powerful emotions in audiences. "Puppets are primal or something. One of the first creative things we do as children is act out scenes with dolls or toy soldiers."