Romancing Cathay: The Growing Power of China Looms in a New International Puppet-Theatre Collaboration
Gener, Randy, American Theatre
All those seeking the truth, an ancient philosopher advised, should go to China. But what remains today of the ancient city of Chang'an, the Eastern rival of Constantinople, Athens, Cairo and Rome? What's left of the imperial stage on which the histories of the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang and six other dynasties unfurled for more than a millennium? A large cultural theme park, that's what. Palaces and mausoleums, temples and pagodas. And a shopping center that's more Elephant and Castle than Peony Pavilion--with a McDonald's next door.
Now known as Xi'an (pronounced Shi-ang), the capital of Shaanxi Province, Chang'an was, at one point in time, the most populous city in the world. It was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the crossroad where travelers, merchants, farmers and nomadic tribes converged to trade. These days a popular tourist attraction, Xi'an lives off its reputation as China's former capital city for 1,100 years (from the 2nd century B.C. to the 9th century A.D.). Somewhat isolated by geography, language constrictions, customs, and market forces, the province's folk-art heritage of rod puppetry and pi ying (shadow play) flickers mostly as an emblem of "old China" (as featured in To Live, the 1994 feature film by Xi'an's native son Zhang Yimou).
A favored target for Hong Kong investors and real-estate developers, Xi'an has become a living diorama of itself. In the morning: Stroll through the royal gardens of the Great Tang Dynasty Lotus Park, which opened to the public this past April. In the afternoon: Enter a huge pit of 8,000-odd terra-cotta warriors, horses and bronze chariots. In the evening: Sample the menu of juicy dumplings (dubbed "Pearls of Cathay") that come optional with the fire breathing acrobatics and general sword-waving in the nightly dinner-theatre performances of the Tang Dynasty show.
If you go to Xi'an--as the avant-garde auteur Ping Chong did three times, beginning in the autumn of 2003, in preparation for Cathay: Three Tales of China, an original puppet-theatre work debuting Sept. 10 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre--you might be overcome by a feeling of incongruous Orientalia. As one of two jocular Tomb Guardians that serve as framing devices in Cathay exclaims: "Why, it's almost as if it happened only yesterday." Replies the other Tang-style human-headed cat statue: "It's all unfolding before me again like an enchantment, an enchantment of splendors past."
This exchange between two smart-alecky sphinxes pretty much sums up the spirit of jouissance that subtly underscores Cathay, a cunning transcultural meshing of Chong's New York City-based multimedia/puppet troupe and the Shaanxi Folk Art Theatre of China, the northwest region's only professional puppetry and shadow-figure ensemble (established in 1953). Commissioned by the Kennedy Center of Washington, D.C., where it performs Oct. 21-23 as part of a month-long Festival of China, Cathay dramatizes a big epochal subject, but the talking feline reliquaries allow for intrusions of satire, ironical humor, even supernatural effects. Based on figures found in the royal tombs of Xi'an, these guardians, says puppet designer Stephen Kaplin, "have awakened after centuries of being buried. They now find themselves inside glass cases in a hotel lobby." Lightheartedness counterpoints and dislocates Cathay's weighty themes. "Chong's aim," says SFAT's production manager Lu Xianglin, who accompanies master puppeteer Liang Jun (Chong's assistant director and dramaturg), "is to let the world understand China, to propagandize China through the contrast of Chinese past and present."
Visually striking, cursive and flowing like a decorative scroll, Cathay's format recalls the stately unfolding of Chong's previous puppet-driven triptychs, Kwaidan and Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight. (After Seattle and D.C., Cathay performs Oct. 28-Nov. 12 at the New Victory Theater in New York City. …