The last time I saw the Quanzhou Marionette Theater perform they were doing a Gogol play, which is to say the troupe is hardly beholden to tradition. But when they do get started on tradition, as they did last night at Zankel Hall, they certainly don't hold back.
Like the Salzburg Marionettes, their closest Western equivalent, the Quanzhou troupe largely popularizes “human” opera. But unlike their Western counterparts, who these days mostly mime to recordings, the Quanzhou puppeteers are also trained performers who sing on stage with a live band. Their performance last night was not all that much different from any other night at the Chinese opera, with the usual hodgepodge of scenes and set pieces—except that they avoided the rather recent (and unfortunate) tradition of amplifying performances beyond the pain threshold. Who knew that Zankel could be such a natural Chinese opera house?
That said, the evening took a while to find its stride. The four generals in the opening segment introduced a few conventional Chinese opera gestures, but seeing wooden puppets mimic the stylized contortions that live performers train a lifetime to master is rather like watching a CGI action scene in a movie instead of the real thing. Soon, though, virtuosic displays from the senior troupe members in classic solo roles steadily hit the mark, from the comic precision of Chen Yinghong’s Young Monk, to the lyrical elegance of Lin Xiaojun’s Ruolan, to the drunken exuberance of Zhang Gong’s Zhong Kui.
After intermission, that virtuosity unfolded into genuine dramatic art, first in an effective episode from Journey to the West (strangely translating the villainess as the Skeleton Enchantress rather than the more standard White-Boned Demon, later a famous appellation for Madame Mao) then in a staged tribute to Quanzhou local holiday customs. Only in a highly populist—and genuinely funny—encore, when veteran puppeteer Xia Rongfeng’s monkey started circling the stage on a bicycle, did the puppetry entirely break free of its operatic roots.Posted by Ken Smith