Theater department’s new play has hell going to the birds

The theater department has gone to hell…sort of.

With its latest show opening in the Lab/Studio115 theatre-“Bird Catcher in Hell,” a Buddhist morality play written by Bodhi Zen (aka Glenn Brown), directed by his wife Linda Brown and opening Thursday in the Lab Theatre at the Performing Arts Building-the department is giving audiences a glimpse at a decidedly different Hades.

Based on coupling of a Buddhist Sutra (a scriptural narrative) and what Jerry Gardner, movement choreographer for the performance, calls “a synthesis of Buddhist teachings and exploration,” Brown’s seventh original work is “one of the few shows they [students] will see where the extension of expression is more than words and voice,” according to Gardner.

“Bird Catcher” follows the journey of Ukai and Maya, a young couple, as they become trapped in a form of hell. The pair dreams of a prosperous life, but the dreams are shattered when war and time change their hopes.

The play is narrated by Hoichi, a blind traveling priest, who offers to tell the couple’s tale in return for a dry corner in which he might escape an approaching storm.

As might be expected, not everything is as it seems in this narrative from the netherworld-a younger version of Hoichi appears in the play as well, revealing his involvement in the lives of the couple and his role in hell.

Ukai’s profession is that of a bird catcher, or better understood, as a cormorant fisherman (the word ‘Ukai’ actually means a form of cormorant fishing), a job he considers forced upon him by time and circumstance. Cormorants are a type of bird that Ukai uses to capture sweet fish.

The couple finds itself in hell one night while Ukai is fishing. Maya is wrapped up in her loneliness and loss while Ukai, the bird catcher, is swallowed up by a 15-foot fish.

“My hope [is that] the audience gets transported to a story land where 15-foot fish appear,” Glenn Brown said.

Once trapped, the two must search for a way out by escaping the clutches of Yama, the king of hell.

What follows is a trip through eight different levels of a hell built on what Buddhist teachings call the five hindrances, the three mental poisons and of course, desire. Hoichi acts as the conscience of the two while in hell, becoming a guide, of sorts, similar to Virgil’s role in Dante’s “Inferno.”

“Bird Catcher in Hell” is very unique in the way it is told-through the use of shadows, masks and Wayang Goleck (a form of rod-puppetry), the story unfolds. Cast members step into the roles of Ukai and Maya while they are in hell, whereas Hoichi is always articulated by a puppeteer and puppet.

As they travel deeper and deeper into hell, all manner of creatures and beasts are summoned in varying degrees of disfigurement and form. From giant turtles, troupes of monkeys and even a herd of cows, cast members enter into the roles of puppeteer, actor and storyteller.

“It’s visually stunning and like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” Glenn Brown said.

The story is full of human characters and their flaws-everyone has to overcome fears, doubts, anger and desires, or else suffer a lifetime (if not longer) as a plaything of Yama.

Brown adds that the themes and issues are ones that are not specific to a single religion:

“Everybody has to deal with it,” Linda Brown said. “If you’ve been forced to see theatre, you’ve been forced to see western styles driven by text. [This play] is not driven by text. It’s driven by movement, sound and gesture.”

“Bird Catcher” comes prepared to blow away its audiences with an amazingly colorful set design by Nicole Christensen and Brian Christensen. Brian Thur goes on to compliment the set with a lighting design that really puts the cast and audience in the world of the play. Joe Payne’s extensive sound design makes your hair stand on end and Laurie Stringham’s costume design is the icing on the proverbial cake.

With Gregory Barrera’s Chinese opera-inspired makeup design and a cast of 21, this show will have audience members exploring a whole new world of theater rarely produced.

“[It’s] cutting edge and experimental theater. That’s not something you would expect in Salt Lake City. Those seeking to escape the culture elite should come see this show,” said Gardner.

“It’s sheer entertainment and it’s different. So few people do this kind of theatre,” said Glenn Brown.

“Bird Catcher in Hell” opens this week and plays through Sunday Evening at the Performing Arts Building. The show’s popularity has already prompted the department to add a closing show Sunday evening at 7 p.m.

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