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Paperhand's theatrical picture book remains locked

Mystification and elucidation

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Click for larger image • A projected image from Hungry Ghost - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Hungry Ghost

Paperhand Puppet Intervention / Theatre of Performing Objects
@ Manbites Dog Theater
Through Jan. 24 in Durham; see www.paperhand.org for additional shows in Saxapahaw and Carrboro

On a park bench, you find a picture book. You sit, and turn the pages, viewing an artfully crafted set of sights: hellish panoramas suggesting woodcut versions of Hieronymus Bosch; fine-line illustrations of faces, some of them suffering; verdant Eastern landscapes; urban city settings.

For all this, the tale remains locked. Since you can't read the ideograms at the bottom of each page, you can't tell why the mother frowns at her infant child in one illustration; whose village burns on another; what connects these two characters with a falling man, or an office worker elsewhere in the book.

That, unfortunately, describes my experience with Hungry Ghost, the visually stunning and musically accomplished puppet theater collaboration between co-creators Tori Ralston's Theatre of Performing Objects and Donovan Zimmerman's Paperhand Puppet Intervention, now at Manbites Dog Theater.

Behind a triptych of circular screens set in panels of embroidered red fabric and bamboo, shadow puppets populate the locales mentioned above. Then three-dimensional rod and bunraku­ puppets emerge from the shadows: the fearsome titled creatures from the Buddhist and Shinto traditions, behind the living ones they must bedevil.

Those Eastern traditions do hold that those who are ruled by their appetites while living ultimately find them inescapable after death. And the karmic retribution is delivered with an ironic twist: Those who starved their spirits during life while gorging other, baser, tastes become spectral grotesques with distended bellies (indicating either gluttony or terminal starvation)—below throats so thin that little nutrition can ever pass through them. Hungry ghosts: spiritually ravenous, but with little ability to satisfy themselves, even if food is at hand.

Or so the story goes, in part. Those religions also note these haunts may emerge through no fault of their own. If, for example, an ancestor's progeny are wiped out, no one is left to offer sacrifice for the dead. Then they, too, must unquietly roam the earth. Hence, a problem equally disturbing to a culture steeped in ancestor observance: being forgotten.

At first, we'd say that Ralston and Zimmerman's work is too focused on faith-based social criticism to depict such random workings of the dharma. The problem with that assessment, I'm afraid, lies in the word "focus."

After a culturally faithful initial scene shows the havoc such ghosts can wreak, we're suddenly following a man through an office building as he descends to the street, walks to his apartment, and settles in for the night. Musician John Walken intones the text: "Behold the dreamer/ seeking sweet escape into/ far forgotten lands."

We then find ourselves in a village at the base of a mountain, where a man climbs—ever so slowly—to the top, greeting a goat and a seated guru along the way. At the top, he is knocked off by a flying bird, and falls all the way down to a stream at its base, far far below. Is it the same man who rides a bike bearing cages of birds in the following scene, rescuing a female character from encroaching ghosts? The connection between this and the previous scene seems tenuous at best.

Later, both of these characters—we suppose—reappear in front of the screen in 3-D, as bunraku puppets. After a ghostly attack, the woman cries on her bed, alone, before being joined by the man. In one of the production's most delicate moments, the two have tender, careful sex—before, that is, a shadow sequence shows an unsmiling woman looking down at an infant she holds. What does this mean? It's hard to say. And are we still in the office guy's dream? Harder still to interpret.

Some scenes are more decipherable. A guy watches TV at home, at night, alone—his fat stomach ominously resembling that of the unhappy specters we've already seen. As in other works, Hungry Ghost's creators portray and criticize a by-now familiar character: the drone, the interchangeable cog in the corporate machine. But the curious thing in this tale: the Eastern characters he dreams of don't seem any happier or more enlightened than he is.

A village burns, in whose dream (or if a dream) it's hard to say. Grains of rice spill down upon the head of the Asian man's puppet—a visual quote seemingly lifted from an American Dance Festival performance—while the narrator talks of time's erosion. The woman dies in bed. A giant bird bears the woman away. How these and other images further the notion of the hungry ghost is hard to say.

With as spare a text as this—indeed, the handful of oracular words that constitute the script seem written literally in haiku—Hungry Ghost is largely depending on us to connect the dots between the different visuals it presents to give the piece coherence. That doesn't always work out here, when the scenes repeatedly shift back and forth from East to West, and from waking to dream to, conceivably, dream within a dream.

In the overtly didactic end, the office worker and the audience both wind up getting hit over the head with the moral Hungry Ghost's creators have found. It's ironic that the images preceding require more than the thinnest string of words we're provided with to figure out how they truly connect, and decrypt the tale its creators want to tell.

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