Cathay: 3 Tales of China Conceived, written & directed by Ping Chong, Made in collaboration with Shaanxi Folk Art Theater, Seattle REP, September 10-October 9, 2005
The Lovely Bride and I have season tickets with the REP, which I like because its pins us down to going at a certain time to a certain place for a certain show. It can be particularly rewarding if the show is one that I might not choose to see on my lonesome. I mean, I can't really imagine waking up one Saturday morning and saying "Yaknow, I'm really in the mood for a good puppet show".
And that's what we have here, for the lead-off for the 2005 season as well as its new artistic director. A puppet show - well presented, ingenious, but ultimately as hollow as a marionette's head.
Cathay: 3 Tales of China consists of three smaller plays, given linkage by a pair of highly animated statues, who serve as smart-alecky Statler and Waldorf for the proceedings (and are the most human of the figures presented). The first tale is in the Tang dynasty of an eternal love overturned by duty to state, where the empress must die for the empire to live. The second tale jumps dramatically to WWII where the Japanese invaders destroy the life of a young boy. And the third takes place in a hotel in modern cosmopolitan China, with sort of a Grand Hotel vibe to it.
All of this is presented on a grand stage of sliding panels that move smoothly from one sequence to the next, and mixes all manner of puppetry. And from a technical end, it's brilliant, and got me thinking about how this form of entertainment can pull off stuff that normal theater cannot. The puppetry and staging allows quick cuts, long establishing shots, creates greater depth trough using different size puppets of the same characters, and effective camera work impossible with normal stagecraft. One scene, shown from a viewpoint of the ceiling above, top down, was particularly impressive.
The problem here, is that I found myself trying to solve the production challenges presented by the presentation as opposed to tuning into the play itself. How did they pull that off? Am I listening to a tape or a live speaker? Am I watching life shadow-puppetry or a pre-created projection? And that's the prob - I should not have the time to key in on such things. Beneath the shiny surface, the structure does not hold together, and the plot does not engage or really resolve. Both the first story and the second are resolved in the third, but don't seem to connect to each other at all. What is the underlying theme - that people suffer but the state endures? That China is always going to have its barbarians - be they mongols or rappers?
In many ways it reminded me of SF movies at the dawn of Industrial Light and Magic, where they suddenly had the power to create impressive-looking displays, but taking years for the scriptwriting to catch up (yes, some will argue that it is still an ongoing process). I cannot doubt the skill of the puppeteers - it is portrayed in every nuance. But puppetry is a cool presentation format. Not cool as in neat, but rather as in distant and removed. So without a strong base beneath it, it ultimately disappoints.
I know I saw a show. The question is whether I saw theater.
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