Puppets play with the story of Buddha

‘Gotama: A Journey to the Buddha’ tells the story of young Buddha’s transformation from pampered to pious

Tatum Fjerstad

Thanks in part to the genius of Jim Henson, many people think of puppets merely as child’s play.

The same puppets that entertain children challenge adults. They ask them to look deeper, suspend their disbelief and connect their inner child with their adult psyche.

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre plays with their puppet expertise to tell the deceptively simple story of “Gotama: A Journey to the Buddha.”

“Puppets have an incredible amount of sort of odd power,” said Andrew Kim, the show’s director. “People have to open up and change their definition of what is possible in the world.”

Prince Siddhattha Gotama is a man searching for the cure to all human suffering. Channa, Gotama’s charioteer, narrates the journey from birth to zen as Gotama becomes Buddha, which means “the teacher.”

“How can we save the world if we can’t save ourselves?” Channa asks of Gotama after he has nearly starved himself to death because “eating solves nothing.”

Linen and things

The theater smells like burning incense. The set is draped with white linen used as a background for projecting the words of Gotama as well as other important images. Behind the linen, silhouettes form and take the audience on the journey with Gotama.

The human characters, those with flesh and lungs, are dressed in shades of white; the characters made of papier-mâché and cardboard wear colorful costumes.

An array of instruments, some one-of-a-kind, makes up the play’s music. The instruments make sounds as interesting as their names: ond, duduk, daff and zarb.

Laura Harada and Tim O’Keefe are well trained with the instruments, as well as in Eastern music styles. Their work with “Gotama” brings live excitement and even a few tears.

Gotama’s birth

The process behind this story started about two years ago when Kim and Masanari Kawahara (creator, designer and performer) came together, and Kim posed the idea of telling the story of Buddha.

Kawahara grew up as an atheist in Hiroshima, Japan; he believed religion divides people and is the result of fighting. When he moved to Minnesota and attended school at the University’s Duluth campus and later at the Twin Cities campus, he saw many people who practiced Buddhism were pure in their search for zen. Since then, he has strived to incorporate meditation and zen into his everyday life.

So when Kim approached him with the idea of telling the “quintessential heroic journey” of Gotama, Kawahara took on the challenge.

“I said ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is the biggest mountain you have to climb,’ ” Kawahara said. “But then I thought it’s a little story or a big story, and what’s the difference.”

Four puppeteers and two musicians met for two weeks to create the story from scratch using existing puppets, scraps of cardboard and trial and error to construct the story.

After nailing down the show’s basic premise, the company built the set and puppets, wrote the script and made the story of Buddha available to the young and old – making full use of their puppets’ capabilities.

“It’s fun because you’re playing with the rules,” Kim said.