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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.”