Saturday, July 1, 2023

"The Buddha Prince" by TigerLion Arts at Wasburn Fair Oaks Park

If you've been reading Cherry and Spoon for a while, you might know that Nature, the outdoor walking play about the life, work, and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, is one of my favorite theater experiences of all time. But what you may not know, and what I didn't know either, is that Nature was not TigerLion Arts' first foray into ambulatory theater. Back in the early aughts, Nature co-creators Markell Kiefer and Tyson Forbes (along with Samuel Elmore) developed The Buddha Prince with Tibetan-American artist Tenzin Ngawang. After performing multiple times around the country, the piece was shelved while Nature was developed and toured for the next decade. Now they're bringing it back for the first time in 14 years. I said on the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat that if The Buddha Prince was half as good as Nature, it would be a wonderful experience. I'm happy to report that it is as lovely and unique an experience as Nature, with many of the same themes and even structure, just with a different focus. A co-production with the Tibetan American Foundation of MinnesotaThe Buddha Prince is a celebration of the life and work of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as Tibetan culture, music, history, and dance.

Clay Man Soon, Tenzin Ngawang, and some yaks
(photo by KR Nelson)
First, some logistics. The Buddha Prince is performed outdoors in the Wasburn Fair Oaks Park, adjacent to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The play is constructed as seven scene, performed in five different locations around the park, with the audience walking between them, guided by the performers (very similar to Nature). If you have a small and portable camp chair, you could bring that, or a blanket. They also provide small light folding chairs, as well as umbrellas and water bottles (there was a golf cart driving around at the performance I attended, please contact the theater with any accessibility needs). Most of the locations have some shade, but it is outdoors in the Minnesota summer, so be prepared. But the piece would not be as meaningful and effective if performed in a traditional indoor theater setting; being out in the elements elicits a stronger connection with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and his love of nature and animals.

the young Dalai Lama (Clay Man Soon) communing
with animals (photo by KR Nelson)
The story follows a novice New York Times reporter (Winifred Froelich) who has come to interview HHDL (Jay Ramos). As she questions him and he begins to tell her about his life, we travel with him and watch those scenes play out. Adorable 5-year-old Tenzin Namgyal plays the young HHDL, chosen or recognized as the next Dalai Lama at the age of two, and soon thereafter sent to the town of Lhasa to study and learn to fulfill his role. The youthful and effervescent Clay Man Soo portrays HHDL in these years, playful and "naughty," preferring to spend time outdoors and with animals rather than at his studies. Shortly after assuming his role as spiritual and political leader of Tibet at the age of 15, China invades, and he's eventually forced to leave his homeland and live in exile in India (where he still resides today at the age of almost 88). The play takes us through all of these stages of his life, and shows us the human behind the iconic leader.

photo by KR Nelson
Interspersed with the scenes of HHDL's life (enacted by the talented and playful ensemble including Janelle Tangonan Anderson, Maje Adams, Ankita Ashrit, Alex Galick, and Ashley Horiuchi) are traditional Tibetan music and dance. The multi-talented Tenzin Ngawang is the Music and Dance Director, and also plays a plethora of traditional Tibetan instruments. He sings, dances, and plays with a sparkle in his eye and an infectious spirit that draws the audience in. Performers of all ages in gorgeous traditional costumes perform the dances that add color and authenticity to the story, and guide us from one location to another.

Ensemble members are dressed in the familiar maroon color of Buddhist monk's robes; even the reporter's Western clothing is maroon. Incredible puppetry on display includes yak's heads, various animals, a fluffy creature inhabited by two people, and a long dragon on a stick that flies over the crowd. Each location has a few backdrops with charming paintings of mountains or other nature scenes (mask and scenic design by Sky Brooks, wardrobe by Anabel Weiland).

Like Nature, The Buddha Prince is an experience that transcends theater. The total immersion in Nature, the physicality of moving and following along on this journey, the children running around mesmerized by the performance, the authentic Tibetan music and dance performed by our local Tibetan-American community, the Dalai Lama's message of peace, kindness, and human connection, the enthusiasm and energy of the performers, all combine to make this a unique experience that should not be missed. Performances continue through July 9 only, with both daytime and evening performances (click here for info and tickets). And while you're there, be sure to check out the Hennepin History Museum across the street, that includes a special exhibit on the early life of HHDL, as well as exhibits about the history and culture of Hennepin County.