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Flash Review, 9-21: Puppets Suspended, Disbelief Not
Tang Shu-wing's Millennial Madness

By Peggy H. Cheng
Copyright 2000 Peggy H. Cheng

In the closing weekend of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, "Millennium Autopsy" plays at the Public Theater's Newman Theater through Sunday. Tang Shu-wing, playwright/director/actor, brings this piece from Hong Kong. Largely a one-man show, the work relies heavily on the video segments and a few select monologues spoken by Tang to reveal the narrative of an emotionally torn doctor of genetic engineering on the eve of the Millennium.

Seen last night, the piece's minimal use of puppets was a strange twist (is this the Festival of Puppet Theater?). The puppets, which are traditional puppets used for Chinese Opera-based puppet plays (and in this case designed by the Guangdong Puppet Troupe of China), were mainly props that, on the one hand, echoed the puppets and puppetry in the video segments and, on the other, hung from the rafters in a similar representation as "characters" in the doctor's story.

The story is that on December 31, 1999, the eve of not just the Millennium but also (sic) the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, the doctor decides to do an experiment in genetic engineering -- to create a baby from his grandfather's DNA . It seems that the doctor has some kind of "genetic problem" which he had passed on through impregnating his wife, and in attempting to rectify this genetic no-no had accidentally killed both wife and baby. By creating a baby, one surmises, he is a carrying on the lineage, the history represented by his grandfather/ancestor and has also found a way to bring his wife and baby back. Lighthearted this story could never be, yet I found myself yearning for a lightening of the pace. The plodding, heart-wrenching, soul-searching pace of the piece was epitomized in a scene where the corpse/grandfather (played by Peter Stuart, who was also composer and live musician), wrapped in mummifying bandages, comes to life, long enough to stir and then fall onto the doctor's back. Metaphorically, the doctor's history and mistakes become a heavy burden which keeps him down, unable to move in any direction.

The grandfather's history, which may also weight on the doctor's back through the means of lineage, is where the puppet connection is made. It turns out the grandfather was a puppeteer during the Cultural Revolution and was beaten to death for making an experimental film with his puppets criticizing Chairman Mao.

The stage is composed of a series of raised platforms arranged to have spaces in between that are large enough for a human body to pass through. The spaces are used as hiding place, platform from which the puppets can rise and the corpse crawl from, and where Tang, as the doctor, can crawl in and out of or peer over and cross the "divides," thus creating a sense of uneasiness and the question, what lies beneath? The thing is, I was uneasy throughout the piece. I found it difficult to settle in and believe in the story, to suspend my disbelief. A video camera keeps a watchful eye on the doctor (who often faces the downstage left corner of the stage area) while the video image keeps an eye on the audience, facing us straight on. Even with these two perspectives I felt the progress of the story to be one-dimensional, lacking a quality of sincerity despite a clear expenditure of energy in the execution.

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