I like puppet theater of all sorts and have been unusually fortunate to see many different styles of performances: American types of all sorts, carnival puppets, Chinese hand puppets, Chinese shadow theater, Czech marionettes, Indonesian shadow theater, Japanese bunraku, Punch and Judy shows, Vietnamese water puppets – and I have undoubtedly left a few out.
There are some fascinating opportunities to see puppet theater on DVD now. Let me begin my tour of puppets (in honor of the Chinese New Year) with a 2007 release: a 10 DVD set +70 page book (for less than US$30) by the Hsiao Hsi Yuan Hand Puppet Theater [Publisher web site, Eslite bookstore]. This DVD set presents, over the course of 20 hours, the classic of the story of the Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with accompaniment of Beijing opera music (although the narration is primarily straight – not sung, in Mandarin.)
(Since the DVD set contains no English, it helps to read the story first – if your classical Chinese is a bit rusty, I recommend Moss Robert’s translation [English-only edition, Chinese-English diglot edition]. There is also a quirky online annotated version using the archaic Brewitt-Taylor translation, although the annotations contain more errors than not!)
In many ways, watching the DVD version is better than seeing a performance is person – would you have the patience to sit through 20 hours of performance? The performance itself is riveting, and even if you have never read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’ll follow much of the performance with its amazing tricks, beautiful puppets, and elegant action.
We live in such a fortunate time that such cultural treasures are available to us so easily.