Critique by Piyali Mukherjee
(Brookline, Mass.) I Wan Jan is a puppet troupe from Taiwan who presented their debut and only performing show in Boston on July 14th. The troupe was founded by Li Tien-Lu, who named the group “I Wan Jan” (translation: “like natural”) because he believed that a puppet show could be as convincing as any performance by a live actor. The members of the troupe are fourth and third generation descendants of Li Tien-Lu.
From the many narratives that the troupe performs, the show that night was a depiction of a story called “A Chance Encounter” (English title). The story was expressed by the music and physicality of the puppets. It tells of a “mild-mannered” male character and a female character who walked the streets; street performers and clowns also entertained. The story ends in a romantic encounter for the male and female protagonists.
With a total of about 8 spoken lines, and some other physical noises such as grunts, the music was the only true marker of plot pacing and emotions, which can be a little difficult to adjust to for an audience member not familiar with traditional Taiwanese music. The spoken lines are mostly interjections such as “sorry”, “okay” and “ow”. I was informed afterwards that the dialog was translated to English for the international appeal of the performance. However, the show seemed to be able to carry the plot without dialog.
The show was rendered in a traditional puppetry technique from Taiwan known as “Bu Dai Xi”, (translation: “cloth-bag theater”) which refers to the style’s materials and origins and was attended by representatives from local Chinese-language media outlets, representatives from the local Taipei Economic and Cultural Office and spectators who ranged from children to grandparents.
Every character, including the supporting cast such as Woman’s Elderly Male Relative Who Coughs, is introduced through a short solo introductory scene that also contains a sound unique to the character. For example, in this case, the Elderly Male Relative is introduced into scenes with a cough soundtrack to accompany his actions. The Woman is introduced into the scenes brushing her long hair very carefully, one of many examples of the excellent characterization work done by the troupe.
The supporting cast, in this particular story, highlight the comedic elements of the show through mostly slapstick comedy. The Clown, in particular, also derives punchlines from breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging that he is part of a performance.
All instruments and performers were live. Chang Chia Shuo and Chen Chi Lan led the scene from behind the curtain with drums and gongs. They were accompanied by Li Tsai Su-jen, a grandmother of three of the performers and costume designer for the show. The gongs marked punchlines, the beginning of a new act, and escalating tensions.
Since I was not exposed to traditional music of this kind before, I began to grasp the pacing of the show about two scenes in. Yang Ching Yi, on the suona (an instrument compared to the oboe) and the huqin (two-stringed Chinese fiddle), and Yen Wei-Lun, on the Chinese flute, were able to effortlessly render the atmosphere of a beautiful spring day.
The careful construction and detailed design of the puppets is evident from the opening, however the real mastery of the puppetry shines through the street performer’s tricks. Visually, the feat looks difficult to achieve as-is. The fact that a puppet is able to perform with such control speaks to the skill of the puppet masters Li Yi Hsien, Chang Chia Ming, and Lee Chiun Kuang. Another fascinating example of the careful puppetry was visible in the fight scenes, which were precisely choreographed and yet executed with the emergency of an escalating conflict.
Altogether the evening was informative, entertaining, brought laughs and provided generally wholesome content for the entire family. After the show, American puppeteer and liaison Margaret Moody held a discussion and lecture session afterwards where children were invited on stage to try their hands at the puppets and to learn about the history of the Bu Dai Xi tradition.
The I Wan Jan Troupe is currently touring through the United States at these locations.