Sitting in the stifling heat of a late Charleston afternoon, I looked around at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre’s audience. As expected, there were a decent number of children, clinging tightly to the earbuds passed out as they walked into the tent set up in the Stern Student Center garden. The live music — composed of a zither, flute, fiddle, one-string zither, drums, and one singer — was amplified by large speakers, and the event’s organizers clearly had the sensitivities of kids’ ears in mind. I appreciated this, especially since this event is probably the most family-friendly ones of the festival. I tried to watch the show with this in mind, wondering if the performance, spoken and sung entirely in Vietnamese, would translate well for a younger crowd.
My eight-year-old self was not disappointed. Neither was my 24-year-old sister who sat next to me, shrieking with delight every time a new puppet flopped on to the stage. There you have it folks: This show is for everyone.
The “stage” is actually an 8,000 gallon tub of water in which puppets glide, splash, and emerge throughout the play. Golden Dragon’s manager, Michelle Galuszka, introduced the show, explaining that we were about to see traditional scenes of daily life in Vietnam, as well as characters and creatures from Vietnamese folklore — namely the four holy beasts comprised of the dragon, the turtle, the phoenix, and the qilin, which is often translated into English as “unicorn.” Galuszka also instructed us how to interact with the musicians: Every time they exclaimed some version of “oy!” the audience yelled “oy!” back. I’m not sure what those words translate to, but they made the whole thing even more fun.
While fire-spitting dragons (yes, actual sparklers spewed from their mouths) and the synchronized dancing fish stole my heart, I think I was most taken with the depictions of manual labor, farming, and fishing in Vietnam. The puppets — wooden-looking Pinocchio-esque creatures with simply painted faces — were beautiful in their motions. After one puppet planted what I thought was a rice paddy, green shoots slowly rose from the water, justifying all of his splashing and arm swinging. “Look,” my sister whispered, “it grew.”
There was something sweet and poignant about the traditional scenes of farming and planting and I respected what the Vietnamese puppeteers were celebrating in their culture. I hoped that the kids around me picked up on that celebration too.
The only flaw of this production was the quality of some of the puppets. I understand that water damage had probably taken its toll on these creations, but I did think that for a festival as big as Spoleto, they may have cleaned up some of faded paint and rusting pieces. Fortunately, I don’t think any kid would notice that. I heard giggles, exclamations, and screeches of delight throughout the entire performance. Other than one small boy in the front row who appeared utterly devastated every time his grandmother got splashed with water, I saw nothing but happy children.
The sensory delights kicked into overdrive in almost every scene, and the entire audience laughed as the narrator spoke. His high-pitched voice and well-timed pauses cued us into what was supposed to be funny. Who says voice intonations can’t cross language barriers?
As they did in Sleeping Beauty when the show was over, the puppeteers came out from behind the curtain, bowing before a standing ovation. These guys had been standing in water for the show’s hour-long running time, directing puppets with 10-foot metal poles. Their movements required both fluidity and restraint, and a strength I can hardly fathom. The golden turtle and dragon were pretty cool, but the puppeteers are the real stars of this show.