I saw my last show of this festival (aside from tomorrow’s Finale) this afternoon: the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Hailing from Vietnam, the puppeteers and musicians of this troupe are keeping a thousand-year-old tradition alive with their puppet performances, which take place in and on top of a huge water tank.
Taking my expectations from the picture I’d seen — the same one all of you saw, in the Spoleto catalog — which showed a bevy of pretty female puppets skimming the water with their hands in some kind of dance, I sat down in the tent that houses Golden Dragon’s watery stage and temple backdrop ready to spend a rather sedate hour. Instead, we were greeted by Golden Dragon’s company manager, who told us a bit about the art form and to feel free to express ourselves, as audience members in the Vietnamese villages where water puppet shows were originally performed would often call out and exclaim during the shows.
We took her up on that gladly, encouraged by the lively band. They played beautiful traditional music on traditional Vietnamese instruments as well as provided the dialogue (all in Vietnamese, but that didn’t really matter. The only character whose words I really was curious about was the talking turtle. He intrigued me.) They also whooped and hollered during exciting scenes, like when two dragons burst onto the stage and breathe actual fire, or when a fox is chasing a furiously quacking duck, or heroes are rowing their boats through a storm (I think that’s what was happening).
All of this action makes for a lot of splashing, which, simple as it sounds, is a huge reason why the show keeps your attention. There’s always something happening: someone’s diving down under water, or a lion is jumping up out of the water, or a fisherman is slapping his net down on a fish, narrowly missing every time. It’s funny in the most innocent, childlike way.
When the puppeteers walked out into the waist-high water at the end to take their bows, we all stood and cheered like crazy. They, along with the musicians, put on a spectacular show — rowdy, loud, and highly entertaining. It didn’t feel like watching a dead art form being kept alive for the sake of history, but like a vibrant form of theater that’s still around because it’s lots of fun to watch. This is rebirth all the way — although I would have to do a little research to see whether people have been performing these shows for 1,000 years, or whether this art form has been recently resurrected. If it never died in the first place, after all, then who needs rebirth?
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