FESTIVAL REVIEW/Theater;Vietnamese Puppets, Each With a Story to Tell

09-09-2021 | 2912

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The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater of Hanoi, a presentation of the Lincoln Center Festival '96, is charmingly exotic. But there was an odd familiarity to the dancing, diving, cavorting animals and humans and the vignettes they enacted on Tuesday night at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, where the company performs through Saturday.

The look and spirit of the puppet show, directed by Le Van Ngo, is very much like the small shells, each bound with a strip of thin paper, that used to be a staple of the tchotchke trade. Placed in water, those shells would open to reveal such treasures as flags and a few small paper flowers, so gaudy and yet so delicately pretty. The wonder is that so fragile and frivolous an art as this ancient form of Vietnamese puppetry could have survived in that war-torn country.

Water puppetry developed in the rice-farming Red River Delta region near Hanoi around the 10th and 11th centuries and remained a little-known village art until the 1960's. The tiny brightly painted wooden puppets perform on and under the water's surface in a pool, appearing from behind bamboo curtains and from one of two small pagoda doorways and disappearing by diving under the curtains.

In one magical sequence in "Dance of the Fairies," one of 17 short tales presented by the company, ghostlike figures in white with winglike sleeves are barely visible behind the curtains, waiting to pop out and swell the ranks of pale dancing fairies, whose long, jointed arms move as voluptuously as any ballerina's. But the men and women dressed in waders who manipulate the puppets on long sticks are not seen until they take their bows.

In "Legend of the Restored Sword," drawn from an incident in 15th-century Vietnam, a king boating on a lake is approached by a turtle who asks him for the return of a magic sword that helped the king win a famous battle. The sword in its mouth, the turtle dives deep into the water and disappears into his lair behind a tiny floating bridge.

Most of the tales deal with everyday life and lore in Vietnam. Children swim, legs kicking and arms churning like chubby windmills. Dragons spitting water and fire do battle. A pair of phoenixes meet, engage in what seems to be a mating tizzy and then float off together in a post-coital calm. A little farmer plants rice. A man riding a buffalo plays a flute. A fox steals a duckling, and a pair of brilliant green frogs drive a fisherman crazy as he tries to catch them. There is a ceremonial processional complete with canopy, and three boats crammed with rowers compete in tumultuous water.

The five musicians remain unshakably serene even as they cry out or draw what often sounds like a joyous cacophony of sounds, at least to Western ears, from drums, flutes, stringed instruments and a bamboo instrument that looks like a xylophone. An elegant singer fanned herself languorously from time to time despite a chilling breeze.

By Jennifer Dunning