Even when he’s not performing, theater artist Masanari Kawahara moves with grace and elegance. As he regaled visitors at his St. Paul studio, surrounded by his puppet creations and his music, Kawahara picked up a puppet version of himself as a boy — something he fashioned for “The Oldest Boy,” which opens Friday at the Jungle Theater in south Minneapolis.
“Good puppets change their expression depending on the angle,” he said, turning his own head slightly as he turned the puppet. So it was. The puppet boy was Mona Lisa-esque, seeming to smile at one angle and turn pensive at another.
Kawahara is much admired in the theater community, where everyone calls him Masa. Beyond it, though, he is something of a cipher, even though his oversized puppets of tigers, clouds and earthen faces with mushrooms have been part of the thousands-strong May Day festival for a dozen years. His puppets also have featured prominently in shows at, among others, the Children’s Theatre, In the Heart of the Beast and Pillsbury House, where his puppets recently played a central role in “The Children.”
He may become better known after the regional premiere of “The Oldest Boy.” Sarah Ruhl’s 2014 play centers on a youngster believed to be the reincarnation of a spiritual Buddhist leader. The script calls for the boy to be played by a puppet and a real person. Kawahara fills both roles.
“He has a young heart and an old soul,” Kawahara said. “He’s playful and wise.”
He knows this character not just from his own life, but from his work, he said. He leads creative workshops for students at Pillsbury House.
“If you ever come to Pillsbury House and see students walking outside on stilts, that’s Masa,” said Faye Price, the theater’s producing artistic director. “That man is a gem.”
That he is a theater artist at all is something of an achievement.
A secret passion
Kawahara, 48, was born in Hiroshima, a Japanese city synonymous with the atomic bomb. He first pursued his passion for the stage surreptitiously. He asked his parents to support his studies in the United States, but didn’t tell them what course he intended to take.
“If I’d stayed [in Japan], I would probably be working an office job, and very miserable,” he said as he gently manipulated a puppet of his mother that he made for another show. “I couldn’t tell them that I had theater in my heart.”
Kawahara landed on a student visa at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn., where, at 20, he was one of the oldest students. He quickly realized he was out of place. He heard that Normandale Community College in Bloomington had a reputation for theater, and took classes there for a time, then transferred to the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
During his first and only year Up North, he auditioned for Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s “The Green Bird,” and got the part as the title character.
“The Green Bird” gave Kawahara wings. It played at the Yale Repertory Theatre in fall 1993, getting a rave review in the New York Times, which described it as “a fairy tale on hallucinogens.”
“It was magical,” Kawahara said, “because it made me see that I could become this type of artist.”
His life since has been a series of happy accidents, including shows with Mu Performing Arts and In the Heart of the Beast, where he worked for 11 years. He never imagined he would become a puppet maker until he started working at Mu. Now, he’s one of the premier puppet makers in a scene alongside such masters as Sandy Spieler, Michael Sommers and Susan Haas.
“I don’t know if I would say he has a light spirit, because his thoughts and artistry run very deeply,” said Spieler about what distinguishes Kawahara. “But he’s not overwrought. He’s someone who gets at the spirit and light of something very quickly.”
Kawahara’s childhood imprinted on him a history that is unshakable, and he’s used it as unlikely material. The atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was code-named Little Boy. That became the title of a Pillsbury House show he presented with puppetry two years ago in which he imagined himself as the bomb.
“The name sounds so innocent and playful, and yet,” his voice trailed off before he snapped back, this time going into character. “ ‘I had many fathers — Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer.’ ”
The show was wry, witty and heartbreaking. “His dry humor is not a deflection but a coping mechanism,” said Molly Van Avery, who directed that show. “Masa has a huge soul. He’s the consummate artist. And he seeks to understand even something we think is unknowable.”
Reincarnation is another of those big mysteries that he’s glad to explore in “The Oldest Boy” the next few weeks at the Jungle.
“You put the puppet down, and it’s clay and papier-mâché,” he said. “You pick it up and it’s life. There’s something magical, beautiful and mysterious there. All we’re trying to do is understand that.”
Tell that to science and all the religions of the world.