Author: Jill Kimball

CU performs ‘The Long Christmas Ride Home,’ a touching family drama

Paula Vogel’s play uses Japanese puppetry to explore trauma and relationships.

The University of Colorado’s theatre season continues with “The Long Christmas Ride Home” by Paula Vogel. This touching, harrowing play runs Oct. 18-22 in the Loft Theatre.

When the spare but gripping production opens, a family of five is heading home from a disastrous Christmas celebration. Frustrated, tired and stressed from driving on a frozen road, the father snaps and does something his three children will never forget. Using a form of traditional Japanese puppetry called Bunraku, the play moves between past and present to examine how that traumatic moment affected the course of each child’s life.

The playwright Paula Vogel, known best for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” wrote “The Long Christmas Ride Home” in homage to her brother, who loved Japanese culture and passed away from AIDS complications in the 1980s.

“This play is exploring what we make of traumatic moments and how they influence the rest of our lives,” says Director Sarah Johnson, a PhD candidate in theatre. “We all have something we can look back on and say it was an important moment that affected us forever.”

It’s quite a serious subject to explore with puppets, which Western culture typically associates with children’s shows and comedy. But after spending a year living in Japan and many more immersed in the study of its theatrical culture back in the U.S., Johnson is convinced Bunraku puppetry is the perfect vehicle for such a complex story.

“The most powerful theatre I’ve ever seen was a Bunraku piece,” Johnson says. “A character represented by a puppet died, and when she died, the puppeteers literally just took their hands away. When a puppet dies on stage, it actually dies, because we imbued it with life and then we took that away.”

Johnson says we Westerners could learn a lot from Japanese theatre, especially its embrace of the surreal.

“Western theatre is supposed to look like the real world, but in Japan, you’re presenting an artistic version of the world,” she says. “It’s presentational art, not representational.”

Bunraku puppets certainly prioritize the artistic over the realistic, but in this case, they’re in both categories. The puppets, each operated by two or three puppeteers, are about a third of the size of a person, so they’re perfect for representing children.

The play uses human actors, too, in the roles of the parents and as the three grown children reflecting on the past. As the story flashes between that fateful car ride and the ensuing decades, between childlike puppets and regular adult actors, the audience learns more about each character’s outside life and inner turmoil.

“It’s really about families, and how families fall apart and stay together,” Johnson says. “Everyone can see themselves in this play. Even if you have a great family, things can be hard sometimes.”

More CU Theatre productions View all events

Shakuntala

Loading
Oct 31-Nov 3, 2019

Shakuntala

An adaptation of the play by Kalidasa
Full price: $16

Originally noted in the classic Indian epic Mahabharata, Jashodhara Sen's and Nolan Carey's adaptation of "Shakuntala" tells the timeless story of des...

Play Therapy

Loading
Nov 7-10, 2019

Play Therapy

A new play by Oliver Gerland

People communicate in surprising ways. After a supervisor tells Bob to seek direction in life, a chance encounter with a single mother and a non-verba...

A Broadway Christmas Carol

Loading
Nov 15-Dec 8, 2019

A Broadway Christmas Carol

A musical created by Kathy Feininger
Full price: $24

What the dickens happened to Scrooge? He sings (show tunes), he dances (time steps and classic Fosse), he turns into a ham (and we’re not talkin...

The Popular Mechanicals

Loading
Feb 13-16, 2020

The Popular Mechanicals

A play by Robinson, Taylor and Shakespeare
Full price: $16

Shakespeare’s greatest clowns—the popular mechanicals from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"—take center stage in a riotously funny ...

The Language Archive

Loading
Feb 27-Mar 1, 2020

The Language Archive

A play by Julia Cho
Free tickets available starting Jan. 27, 2020.

George is a linguist whose life's work is dedicated to preserving nearly lost languages, but his passion has complicated his relationships with Mary, ...