If the thought of Wall Street executives enjoying $100 million bonuses while millions struggle to pay the bills sets your blood boiling, the Paperhand Puppet Intervention offers the opportunity to see them burning in hell. Well, the Buddhist hell, anyway: The Hungry Ghost, which kicks off the group's 10th year with its first winter show, depicts what happens to the greedy and selfish in the next life.
The Hungry Ghost is a darker than usual work for the five puppeteers and three musicians who make up its production. "Usually, our stuff is a family affair, so everyone can come," says co-director and co-creator Donovan Zimmerman, who's labeled this show for "mature audiences."
"With this one, we're letting ourselves explore a darker side," he says, noting that the company's fans have suggested for years that Paperhand push the envelope further than its traditionally kid-friendly fare permits. So, those who remember such past hits as I am an Insect or A Shoe for Your Foot should think twice about bringing the kids and should be prepared for scarier and deeper themes and some "sexual stuff."
But then, Zimmerman acknowledges that there has always been an edge to Paperhand's work, "We already give kids nightmares," he says, somewhat ruefully.
In addition to its darker subject matter, The Hungry Ghost features a couple of other departures from past practice. Not only is it the first winter show for the company, which traditionally performs in outdoor venues in summertime, it's also the first formal co-production between Paperhand and the Carrboro-based Theater of Performing Objects, the company of marionette artist and teacher Tori Ralston. Ralston says that about 75 percent of the show consists of shadow puppetry, with the balance featuring her marionettes and bunraku puppets, and Paperhand's large puppets and masks.
For the past decade, Ralston has worked less formally with Zimmerman and his Paperhand co-founder Jan Berger, but with The Hungry Ghost, she and Zimmerman are embarking on their first formal writing, directing and producing collaboration. (Berger is less involved with this show—he contributed paper cutouts as a "hired knife," Zimmerman says.)
Ralston, who teaches puppetry at Duke University and Elon University, also has practiced Buddhism for about six years. She says the themes of The Hungry Ghost are drawn from two Southeast Asian sources. One is an ancient legend about a boy coping with the loss of his mother, while the other is a traditional Buddhist conception of the reincarnated essence of humans who have lived life selfishly. She notes that in Buddhist cultures, the month of the seventh moon (usually July or August) is traditionally observed as the month of the hungry ghost.
Zimmerman, too, has been interested in the hungry ghost for a long time. "Essentially, there are nine realms in the Buddhist way of looking at things, and the 'hungry ghost' realm is for people who were basically greedy and miserly in the lives," Zimmerman says. "They end up as these contorted characters with these huge swollen, distended bellies and very frail forms, and they have insatiable hunger and thirst. It's impossible for them to get satisfaction—they sort of skulk around, and every time they try and eat something it turns into ash. They're tormented in this way as karmic payback."
"We thought it was a fascinating subject," Zimmerman says. "We actually thought of it before that stuff with the economy started happening, but it certainly colored this work. But we feel like the heart of the human condition is hoarding and greed, and human generosity is a spiritual path that helps humanity move along. We want to express that it's important for all of us to show spiritual generosity, so we don't turn into hungry ghosts ourselves."
Paperhand has always conveyed a seriousness of purpose even in its most whimsical outings, and the pointed, adult-oriented themes of The Hungry Ghost is a marked, but by no means definitive, departure. Paperhand began when Zimmerman and Berger put together a puppet show for the Haw River Festival and found they liked working in the medium. "We both found [puppetry] was a place where the things we were interested in doing came together," Zimmerman says. "It provided a synthesis for all these different forms we were working with. It really brings it all together, because you get to do everything from dancing to music to sculpting to performing."
Over the years, Paperhand has built up a large audience for its annual performances throughout the Triangle, and it is already working on its show for this summer. "We're hoping to make it quite a spectacular event and pull out all the stops," Zimmerman says.
Still, expect Paperhand's ethical mission to continue, in ways large and small. Zimmerman says that the "intervention" part of the troupe's name comes from its early activist work—Zimmerman started out his adult life working on environmental and Native American issues in Nevada and Arizona, while Berger's roots are in Boston with Homes Not Jails, a low-income housing advocacy group. After the two met and began performing, their work continued to be influenced by their desire to intervene in the complacency of everyday life. "We want to look at the human condition and try to reflect it back as honestly and intelligently as we can," Zimmerman says.
In this case, it's by showing greedy and selfish people burning in hell—a message that is sure to resonate.
Paperhand Puppet Intervention's The Hungry Ghost opens Wednesday, Jan. 14, at Manbites Dog Theater for a Durham run through Jan. 24. The show then moves to Paperhand's home base at the Saxapahaw Community Center for another two weekends, beginning Feb. 6. The following month, The Hungry Ghost will be mounted for a single weekend at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, from March 19-22. Visit www.paperhand.org for more information.