Cathay: Three Tales of China
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 30, 2005
Sometimes the triumph of theatre comes not in the story itself but in the telling. Though the three tales of China that comprise Ping Chong's stunning new theatre triptych, Cathay, are each compelling in various ways, it is the artistry, imagination, and beauty of their presentation that captivates us. Not to mention the precision and delicacy of the work of the artists who created this show: their attention to detail, their dedication to craft, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. See Cathay to regain that sense of wonderment that too many too-literal dramas and musicals often threaten to steal away.
The stories of Cathay span more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the present day. "The Emperor and the Lady" is based on a famous Chinese folk tale, and tells the story of a great monarch who falls in love with the beautiful Lady Yang. He makes her his consort and elevates her family to high positions in the government as well. But when Lady Yang's brother, now prime minister, is revealed to be corrupt—and when the health of the nation starts to falter—the Yang family is blamed for the country's problems. The Emperor must either give up his beloved Lady or face defeat.
"Little Worm," the second tale, takes place during the World War II era. It's about a humble Chinese family whose lives are uprooted, tragically, by the Japanese attacks. The final story, "New," is set in an elegant hotel in the rapidly modernizing city of Xian of today. Bringing together themes from the two preceding pieces along with a number of disparate subplots, a la Grand Hotel, this third segment of Cathay juxtaposes the spectacular socioeconomic "progress" of contemporary China with its rich cultural and historical traditions.
Now what you need to understand is that all three of these pieces are performed in different styles of puppet theatre, realized in extraordinary detail by a remarkable design team consisting of Stephen Kaplin and Wang Bo (puppets), Stefani Mar (costumes), Randy Ward (sets and lighting), and Ruppert Bohle (projections). "The Emperor and the Lady" and "New" are mostly staged with rod puppets—dozens of lifelike dolls worked with astonishing precision by unseen puppeteers, dressed in elaborate costumes and "acting" on intricate sets. One unforgettable tableau depicts Lady Tang and her servant from a bird's-eye perspective; the climactic scenes of "New" treat us to a spectacular miniature of a glamorous hotel that looks suspiciously like the Marriott Marquis. "Little Worm" is done entirely with shadow puppets, two-dimensional drawings projected onto screens.
The transitions between segments are just as inventive, featuring a pair of oversized winged creatures who are standing guard at an ancient forgotten tomb buried deep in the earth.
In addition to the nine onstage performers (the versatile team of puppeteers: Liang Jun, Liang Yunru, Fang Mei, Song Dongqing, Wang Bo, Yang Qing, Dmitri Carter, Heather Carter, Yang Xie Zheng), there are twenty actors credited with the recorded voices of the many characters in the show, including Jenny Bacon, Jack Willis, and Ping Chong himself; the one I think I recognized is downtown actor Steven Rattazzi as one of the two wry guard animals who narrate the show.