Curtain Call: A Sea of Puppets

A Sea of Puppets

Budaisi or glove puppetry performers wear small puppets characterized by carved wooden heads and dressed in elaborate costumes over gloved hands and magically brought to life on a decoratively carved wooden stage. The hand fills the costume, often compared to a cloth sack, causing it to perform. Budaisi can literally be translated as “cloth bag opera.”
The practice began in the 17th century in Quanzhou in the Fujian Province of China and later spread to Taiwan. A populist art form, it has recently enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and thanks to a grant from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, we’ll be able to experience it next week at The University of Scranton. The Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company will stage A Sea of Puppets on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 6 p.m. and Friday, Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the McIlhenny Ballroom at the DeNaples Center.
An exhibition of 20 Taiwanese puppets, some as many as 100 years old, will be on display in conjunction with the performance. Dr. Robin Ruizendaal, an expert on contemporary Asian puppet shows, will also present a free lecture titled All the World’s a Stage: Puppets and Modern Taiwanese Identity at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24 in the McDade Center for Literary and Performing Arts.
Dr. Ruizendaal, master puppet carver Lai Shih-An, and Lin Yen-Chih, who helps direct and design the company’s productions will perform in A Sea of Puppets. The story finds a young girl rescued from a villain by a brave young man and boasts fight scenes and acrobatics. Supporting characters include a scholar, clowns and old man who smokes a real pipe. The content is suitable for all ages. Language will not be a barrier. Doors open 30 minutes prior to curtain. Musicians Wu Shan-Shan, Chang Shih-Neng and Huang Ching-Wei will provide live accompaniment. Both shows are offered free of charge and include a question and answer session after the performance and a workshop on making and operating traditional Taiwanese puppets. Reservations are not required for individuals.
Not unlike Chinese opera, glove puppetry performances are generally divided into two halves. In the first half, audiences are treated to a demonstration of the puppeteer’s skill. In the second half, the orchestra is featured and poetic dialogue is added.
The Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company was created in 2000 by Paul Lin with managing/artistic director Robin Ruizendaal with the goal of preserving the historic Taiwanese art form of glove puppetry. Members have since performed plays such as Marco Polo, The Wedding of the Mice, and The Honorable Thief Liao Tianding, in more than 30 countries.
Because everything needed to stage Budaisi performances can be packed into a single chest, the art form has lent itself to travel. Often the chest serves as a stage with the puppet master hidden behind a curtain. While traditional story lines revolved around trials, scholars and beautiful women, contemporary themes such as martial-arts combat, sci-fi and comedy emerged in the 1980s.
The University of Scranton is one of 12 schools selected as part of this grant from the Ministry of Culture to foster an understanding of Taiwanese culture and society. Call 941-7401 for more information or visit