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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
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