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Cathay: Three Tales of China

Lady Yang and friends in Cathay: Three Tales of China
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
Cherry-picking from 5,000 years of Chinese history, Cathay: Three Tales of China was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for its "Festival of China" next month. (After the production's three-day stop there, it will move to the New Victory Theater in New York for a two-week run.) Playwright-director Ping Chong serves up a visual feast of puppetry, video imagery, and digital animation, but this ambitious undertaking is ultimately marred by an uneven script. Striking as Chong's images are, they never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.

The opening of the show is promising, with two monumental guards -- part dog, part griffin, part human -- keeping vigil in the darkness of an emperor's tomb. These are the warm-up comedians in the House of Tang, trading comic barbs (via pre-recorded voiceover) in broad American slang. Although stationary, the guards come alive with electric blue eyes and flapping wings that hint at the puppet wizardry to come. They reappear throughout Cathay as welcome comic relief and serve as a smart linking device between the three separate stories.

The first piece, The Lady & the Emperor, is the classic Tang dynasty tale of Lady Yang, the consort of the first Chinese emperor. Beautifully crafted rod puppets, outfitted in bright primary colors, animate this ancient story. Chong deftly blends the traditional art of the puppeteer with a filmmaker's sensibility to keep the action nimble and the visuals popping. The story bobs and weaves across Randy Ward's wall of sliding panels (think Hollywood Squares), which swish open and closed to reveal one exquisitely wrought little world after another. One frame reveals a close-up of Lady Yang powdering her face in a mirror; in another, several girls carry softly glowing lanterns across a distant bridge; and, in a particularly arresting scene, we're treated to a bird's-eye view of Lady Yang and her servant. (Not content with this innovation, Chong and puppet designers Stephen Kaplin and Wang Bo throw in a scampering dog as seen by the household parrot.)

The production showcases the dazzling talents of the Shaanxi Puppet Theatre and Seattle's Carter Family Marionettes. Combining forces here, these two companies have built and breathed life into more than 140 puppets for the 90-minute show. The artistry is so skilled and the cinematic style so effective that I found myself checking for Lady Yang's "reaction shot" to the play-within-the play that's performed in her honor. Her smooth, wooden face remained immobile, but her delight was nonetheless palpable.

Most of the puppeteers speak a Chinese dialect, while a pre-recorded soundtrack provides all the English-language dialogue for Cathay. It's a little bit like watching a dubbed movie, and the American-accented English strikes an especially discordant note. Successful in the comedic opening scene, these familiar cadences suddenly seem out of place in the sumptuous world of the Emperor's court. (Lady Yang's smooth tones are uncannily like those of the automated teller on a bank's voicemail system.)

The soundtrack is less of a distraction in the second piece, Little Worm. Leaving behind the heyday of the Tang Dynasty, we journey through the dark days of World War II and the Japanese invasion. Chong's sister and uncle actually endured this horror, which perhaps accounts for the power and simplicity of the tale. This moving account of a young boy whose world is torn apart by the war is by far the strongest segment in the show.

In contrast to the bold colors and cinematic sharpness of Lady Yang's tale, Little Worm gently unfolds with shadow puppets and a muted palette of greens and grays. It's as if a Chinese scroll had unfurled across the stage to reveal lyrical scenes of family life in the countryside. When the Japanese unleash war on this quiet world, Chong lets loose with a powerful video montage of bombers, troops, and raging fires that practically singes the audience. We see Little Worm in the aftermath, picking through the smoking wreckage of his world.

The final story, New, is a contrived sketch about life in a 21st-century Xi'an luxury hotel. Vestiges of the first two stories reappear, with familiar names and faces popping up as if this were a reunion cruise on the Love Boat. Chong is at pains to tie up any loose ends, and the action grinds to a halt as he puts the puppets through their paces. Even the new arrivals can't spark this tale. The message seems to be that China, once the dominant culture on Earth, has re-emerged to claim its place as an economic power and international crossroads. (Everything old is new again -- get it?) There is timely and provocative material in here somewhere, but Chong ignores it as he re-covers the territory he covered in the first two tales. After 5,000 years of Chinese history, American tourists arrive to haggle over souvenirs and chow down at Pizza Hut, but the impact of the moment is lost because we've been hearing their voices since the Tang Dynasty.