Vietnamese Water Puppets

Ancient art makes use of ponds and rice paddies to entertain with folklore and music

PERFORMING a unique peasant art, the Water Puppets of Vietnam made an impressive American debut here recently, with the sizzle and pop of dancing dragons spewing fireworks. The Hao Phuong Water Puppet Theatre overcame language barriers, transporting Westerners into a water-borne world of rice paddies populated by frog catchers, fairies, and mythical monsters.

But the gala opening night was not all sizzle and pop; the festivities were punctuated with chants of sidewalk protesters from the Vietnamese-American community while the puppeteers played in a stone tabernacle.

Nine groups had previously signed a statement protesting the presence of Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations, Trinh Xuan Lang. Demonstrators representing Vietnamese-American groups charged the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with "ingeniously exploiting art ... for the purpose of its political campaign to gain diplomatic recognition from the United States."

Members charged the Vietnamese government with violating human rights and limiting expression."Because of politics, the art form has never been seen in America," according to Michael Pedretti, artistic director of Movement Theatre International in Philadelphia. "We are honored to introduce them to the American public."

Joseph Bangert, president of the USA-Vietnam Society, hosted the troupe during their last stop in Cambridge, Mass., at which about 40 protesters voiced their opposition.

Despite the politicization of the art form today, water puppetry was originally performed on the surface of ponds in the open air with spectators seated at water's edge. It was common in villages of the Red River Delta where land, water, and sky intermingle.

On the US tour, puppeteers, singers, dancers, and musicians from Hai Phong, a port city 60 miles east of Hanoi, spent the past month and a half adapting to landlocked urban landscapes in Cambridge, Mass., Philadelphia, Washington, and Lexington, Va.

They traveled with a large tank built by their sponsors, Movement Theatre International of Philadelphia. The logistics of transporting a 32-by-22-foot water tank restricted their locations to stages capable of tolerating the tank's weight - 150 pounds per square foot.

The Hoa Phuong Troupe performed against a red and gold pagoda, an ornate backdrop for the dragons, unicorns, king, fairy princesses, foxes, and festive birds cavorting on a shimmering aquatic stage. The show combines water puppetry, known as Mua Roi Nuoc, with scenes from Vietnamese folk opera, called Cheo, featuring live performers. Though an English translation was not provided, a synopsis in the program was sufficient to explain the action on stage.

Puppeteers were accompanied by musicians on the xylophone, drums, dan nhi (a double-stringed instrument), bau (a single-stringed lute), gongs, flutes, cymbals, and clappers of metal and wood. Musicians, who adopt lyrics to accompany stories from the north and central parts of the country, are expected to improvise, said Vu Thieu Loan, deputy director of the theater and of Cultural and Information Services in Hai Phong City. During performances he played percussion instruments. He is also a specialist in fireworks.

"While European operas are composed by one person, Cheo is composed collectively," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "It's composed by the people, not by professional musicians. During former times it was composed by talented girls and boys who performed at festivals, then returned to their villages to work in the rice fields. We based the music of Cheo on the folk music of different regions of the country."

AMATEUR troupes still play in some villages in the north. The 19-member Hao Phuong (Hao Phuong means Red Flower) Water Puppet Troupe is among a handful of professional companies. This was their first performance outside of Vietnam, although another troupe from Hanoi has performed in Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Traditional water puppetry may have developed as early as 1121 in the villages along the Red River Delta where legends of kings and mythical monsters are part of the folklore. Nationalistic themes such as fighting against foreign invaders are vividly reenacted. The main players are four mythical beasts: the dragon, unicorn, phoenix, and turtle. In the hands of master manipulators, the hand-carved wooden puppets, monsters, and dragons appear from underwater then - after making marvelous mischief - disappe ar just as suddenly to the audience's delight.

Behind-the-scenes puppeteers stand waist-deep in water, deftly choreographing the movements of the 18 to 36-inch puppets with rods, wire, and string hidden beneath the surface of the water. Puppets can be quite heavy because water can be a resistant as well as a cooperative force, but a skilled manipulator can use it to give life to even the simplest figures.

Considerable mechanics are required to manipulate puppets, flags, and effects. In addition, troupe members must be able to imitate animal sounds and sing. Students of puppetry arts study acting and singing as well as the mechanics of manipulation and compete through performance exams. Before the War of Resistance against the French in 1954, puppetry was solely the province of males, but that has changed. Women now play major roles both as performers and as puppeteers.

Water puppet performances do not follow written scripts, according to Margot Jones, company manager and dramaturg. Words and music are only added after the puppet spectacle has been rehearsed. In a village performance, there is a dialogue between the audience and a main character, who teases the spectators as they yell at him to get on with the show.

WATER buffalo cultivating the rice field followed by enchanted dancing maidens and dragons breathing fire form a stylized tableau of lyrical country life. Popular episodes of folklore such as the legend of the Returned Sword are reenacted. According to the story, in the 15th century a turtle in a small lake in Hanoi offered a sword to a peasant named Le Loi. He left his bucolic life, used the sword to chase out foreign invaders, and was crowned king. As king, Le Loi returned to the lake and celebrated by

returning the sword.

Back on stage in Philadelphia, this episode provided a climax for one act when a royal entourage of puppets created a dreamlike reflection gliding through the water. A clatter of percussion instruments reverberated as the king on his ornamental barge presented the magic sword to a golden turtle.

"The meaning," said one member of the troupe, "proves that the Vietnamese people are a peace-loving people. We don't like war. We just defend our country, and so we give back the sword. We don't want to identify the invaders, only to express the aspiration of Vietnamese people to live in peace."

Mr. Bangert, a Vietnam veteran who plans to conduct business in Vietnam when the US government lifts its 17-year trade embargo, says of the puppet theater: "This is a natural segue into the normalization of relations which is just around the corner. What I hope is that people who come to the fair will discover that Vietnam is not the name of a war but of a society and a culture."

Bangert, who headed Massachusetts' Agent Orange office for the Department of Veterans' Affairs in the mid-1980s, first saw a troupe of water puppets perform in Hanoi in 1985.

"I had this wondrous dream that they could travel to the states," he says. "But never in my wildest dreams did I think that could happen before normalization of relations."

Vu Thieu Loan adds that, "I think it's a result of changes of policy in both countries that we can be here." The US tour of the Hao Phuong Water Puppet Theatre was underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, and the Asian Cultural Council, among others.

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