Strange Tales of Liaozhai
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 7, 2012
I always enjoy the way the mind tends to fill in missing pieces. It can unscramble letters or see things that aren’t actually there. Hanne Tierney’s Strange Tales of Liaozhai had my mind working overtime filling in all sorts of images and expressions as she leads a most extraordinary manipulation of objects on strings.
As you enter the theater you move past the orchestra which consists of several spiny metal sculptures that are resting on melon-sized rubber balls, an upright bass and two toy pianos. There is one musician. The stage is covered with Chinese silk brocades and there are strings precisely hung throughout the playing area and there are four tall scrims along the back wall. A puppeteer is guiding folks to the seats to make sure no one wanders into the web of puppet strings.
There are two tales told in the evening. Both of the stories are adaptations of 18th century tales penned by Chinese scholar Pu Songling. The first is a short story about a man and his beloved pigeons and is told entirely with projections on the scrims. Hannah Wasileski uses water colors on a material called Buddha board that does the amazing thing of evaporating the paint away slowly while you paint. Wasileski then filmed her paintings that told the story and projected them as Richard Chang narrates. Wasileski’s representation of the main characters as abstract brush strokes is exquisite. It was so captivating to watch the strokes fade out of sight as others faded in. I found myself beginning to see real people instead of wisps of paint.
The next story is much longer and is about a young man and his mysterious new wife. As the lights come up on the stage, and Trevor Brown’s lights have an expressive vitality all their own, one of the brocades slowly rises from the floor and begins to move with subtle twists and bends as Tierney narrates from the sidelines. Along with two other puppeteers she deftly tugs at a large bank of strings that make a variety of characters and settings come to life.
The storytelling and the movement are so compelling and intricate that the puppets, which are no more than pieces of cloth, began to take the shape of people in my mind’s eye. I could see their sadness and excitement. My favorite segment was the lovers honeymoon night where Tierney uses two Obis (Chinese silk sashes) that are coiled around each other like snakes in an embrace of love. Throughout the performance musician Jane Wang performs the most beautiful soundtrack on some uncommon instruments. The metal sculptures are called space plates and they indeed sound pretty spacey. Wang taps, bangs and bows them with precision and love. She also plucks and bows the bass and hammers on the toy pianos. The music lends so much more emotion to the piece and I have no doubt that it played a large role in bringing the puppets to life in my mind. The only thing this rich and unique show lacks is a little bit of crescendo here and there. It hums along at a single slow pace throughout and could use some rise in action. Tierney is an amazing artist with a powerful vision. The choreography of the pulling all those strings alone is enough to baffle you.
Strange Tales of Liaozhai is theater that you will not see the likes of very often. The sound, lighting and design pull together to create an experience like none other. My mind was busy filling in faces and emotions on brocade but your mind may very well be blown away.