“I assure you I am not make-believe,” intimates the “wise, intrepid” grandmother to the enormous, half-curious/half-territorial squid who wondered aloud with a child’s voice from behind a rock if human beings, those creatures of the fabled ”dry lands,” were in fact real. The answer is yes, of course. And if such a human is granted the ability to breathe under water by a spectral, wish-giving fish, she can plunge to the lowermost reaches of the ocean floor in search of the Dragon King’s lost pearl, encountering hermit crabs, kelp, minnows and a huge furtive squid along the way. And there is a lesson in general goodness, often through another Chinese fable, for each meeting.
The Asheville Puppetry Alliance, whose stated mission is to “bring together the public, the puppets and the performers” did all three in the late morning of Oct. 23 at the Diana Wortham Theater. The public was there — at least 100 of them (and I was not the only one in the room taller than the grandmother marionette). The puppets were certainly there — the human characters so eerily real seeming, I wondered if the grandson puppet had stage fright — with characters from the wet lands, the dry lands and the sky lands. And the performers were not only there but visibly present throughout the show, a novel and exciting move on part of Tanglewood Marionettes, the Massachusetts-based ensemble who adapted “The Dragon King,” a Chinese folktale probably as old as puppetry itself (earliest known examples go back to 30,000 BC) for the “fully self-contained” puppet theater.
I’d hate to be the “wet blanket” the two courtesans outside the King’s palace accuse the guard of being, so I won’t spoil the plot. I’ll use the safely veiled summary from the program instead: “A terrible drought has overtaken the land, and all the world has turned brown and lifeless. The Dragon King is ruler over all things water, and the people are beginning to wonder why he has not brought the life-giving rains in such a very long time.”
The staging for this tale was at once a theater in miniature and a puppet box gone large, a simple platform flanked by two short, unobtrusive wings. The backdrop showed itself to be a kind of graphic belt as the story began, sliding upward like a slow film projection, replacing the title card with Hasui-meets-Chagall landscape. From the wings, a few “small” stones (but pretty large to scale) and some hills slid out to the first plucks of a Chinese string instrument and accompanying tap of a low drum.
Tanglewood has good style. The show began in the same manner in which the story progressed — slow and compelling, much like the aged tortoise who riveted our attention in the second act as he plodded languidly from wing to wing. But the performance group has more than style. The Union Internationale de la Marionnette-USA, the American branch of “the oldest international theatre organization in the world,” awarded the company the “Citation of Excellence” for “The Dragon King.” Formed in Prague in 1929, UNIMA seems to be the informally official committee on all things stringed. If UNIMA is essentially a peer-review organization, the Citation of Excellence must be for shows that are truly excellent.
The show’s conclusion gave a convincing example of the company’s artistry (this may approach plot-spoiling, so beware). The two puppeteers emerged from the stage, guiding the flight of the Dragon King himself at both ends of his regal sinewy body. Winding through the theater, the King doused the thrilled crowd with water — ostensibly an example of the rain the dry village needs so desperately. I should scan an image of my notebook. The phrase “the suspended balance of levity and gravity” is, perhaps for the best, nearly washed away.
As 3-D takes over the cinemas, the fourth-wall transgression confirmed the statement that the grandmother made to the giant squid about the value of stories: “Nothing that has made it this far is useless.” Puppetry is old, but the imagination, when engaged, is in ever-new real time. The grandmother was also right when she said she was not make-believe. Unlike the immensely complicated, ultimately immaterial mirage of 3-D, puppets are, well, real. When the grandmother tested out her newly gilled lungs, the air above the small stage, which had since transformed to a splendid underwater diorama, actually appeared viscous. She was swimming, at least as far as the vocally elated children (OK, and me too) were concerned. There were no cheap glasses to take off; the illusion was real.
For more information about the Asheville Puppetry Alliance, visit ashevillepuppetry.org. To learn more about Tanglewood Marionettes, visit tanglewoodmarionettes.com