Puppets of 'Cathay' tell epic Chinese tales of love, war and hip-hop
Friday, September 9, 2005

The trouble with puppets is that they "don't know anything, they don't do anything. You have to do everything for them," says Ping Chong. As he enters the last week of rehearsals for the premiere performance of his intricate and ambitious puppet play "Cathay: Three Tales From China," Chong is abundantly aware of the refractory nature of puppets.

"The traditional figures, the shadow puppets from the Shaanxi Folk Art Ensemble, are fine," Chong says. "They are very colorful, made with translucent donkey skin. But the new puppets we've designed -- you have to battle with them."

Chong, a pioneer of New York avant-garde theatre since the 1970s, is not satisfied with purely traditional art, not even exotic traditional art from Central Asia.

Illustrating his point about technical battles, Chong says, "Take the tomb guardian puppets. They are large, five feet, my size. You want them to be light, so the puppeteer can move them around. But then they're not sturdy enough. They rattle when they move, so their gestures are not clear.

Theater veteran that he is, Chong presumably will have things in working order for "Cathay's" opening Wednesday at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The production is a mixture of history and parable. "I wanted to show the rise and the fall and the rise of China," Chong says. The first section of "Cathay" is a Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) Romeo and Juliet story that pits romance against politics.

"The second section is based on two of my sisters' experiences during World War II," Chong says. "My parents left them with two aunts in Hong Kong and then returned to New York. The war broke out. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, it was two women and three children fleeing for their lives -- my one aunt had a son.

"They went to a part of China where they thought they would be safe. When that was invaded, they went to another part of China.

"They survived. My older sister says, 'You know, I lived through the Japanese occupation of China. Nothing could be worse than that. The rest of my life has been gravy.' "

The third section of "Cathay" takes place in a present day five-star hotel. One of its characters is a Chinese hip-hop star, MC Tang.

Chong was born in Toronto. His family moved to New York when he was quite young. His parents were Cantonese opera performers. From his earliest years, ornate, fantastic theater was a familiar phenomenon for Chong.

And speaking of Cantonese, that brings to mind another obstacle to a free-and-easy mounting of "Cathay." "I speak Cantonese," Chong says. "But the puppeteers from China speak Mandarin. Everything has to be translated, so instructions take twice as long as they would otherwise. The dialogue is all in English, so the Chinese puppeteers have trouble picking up their cues.

"Sometimes I think I am understanding Mandarin. But it's tricky. Like the Cantonese word for 'theater' in Mandarin means 'bordello.'

"Dmitri Carter and his wife have been a great help. She is Chinese. He speaks Mandarin. Also, he's good with puppet construction. He helps us work out glitches."

Carter is a member of Seattle's Carter Family Marionettes troupe. The Carters run the Northwest Puppet Center in the Morningside area of North Seattle.

Chong's puppet production "Obon" played the Rep in 2002. As a result of his reputation as a puppet theater innovator, Chong was asked to contribute a piece to the Kennedy Center of Washington, D.C.'s, autumn 2005 Festival of China.

"The people from the Kennedy Center scouted around China and decided that the Shaanxi Folk Art Puppet Theatre should take part in their festival," Chong says. "And I had done 'Kwaidon' (a puppet production) at the center. They loved it. So they worked out this partnership. The Kennedy Center is strictly a presenting facility. They don't have shops and rehearsal spaces. That's why we're starting out here in Seattle. The Rep has everything."

The Folk Art Ensemble is based in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. "The city is fascinating. It was the imperial capital for 1,100 years (202 B.C. to 904 A.D.) It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road trade route. The Ming Dynasty wall still encircles the old part of the city."

"Cathay" is due to open Oct. 21 at the Kennedy Center. Then it goes to the New Victory Theatre in Times Square in New York, where it plays Oct. 28-Nov.12.

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