The inaugural Spoleto performance of Vietnam’s Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre happened outdoors at the College of Charleston Stern Student Center Garden, in humid temperatures probably rivaling the performers’ home climate in Vietnam.
The puppets were held biblically aloft in a pool of milky water by sticks from below, like reverse marionettes.
Musicians flanked the pool on either side, accompanying the performance with a two-string violin, bamboo flute, and a one-stringed zither, among other traditional Vietnamese instruments; the resulting sound was ethereal, as if it could float away on a breeze.
The seven musicians alternatingly sang and hollered exuberantly into their mics, often all at once, creating an overlap of voices and tones. The Water Puppet Theatre was interactive, too: in a repeated call-and-response sequence, one musician would shout a phrase, and the audience was expected to echo it.
The performance’s narrative was explained quickly in English before the show began, but the narrative isn’t really the point. The focus here is more on brief, whimsical slices of life, glimpses into the daily absurdities and routines of people in Vietnam, mixed in with bits of fantasy and magic. Anyone could understand it.
The Vietnamese puppets, in both human and animal form, interacted in ways both charming and boisterous. Tiny men fished in the water, rowed in boats, and bickered with each other; flashes of gleaming fish leapt in and out of the pool, colored ducks floated sedately in a row, and butterflies gamboled through the air above.
In a particularly appealing vignette, two long-necked birds swam together in a prolonged mating ritual, then drew closer for a tender kiss — after which an egg popped up from the water below them. In one of the most impressive spectacles, two red and orange dragons chased each other in circles, while sparklers fizzed out of their fire-breathing mouths and laced the air with smoke.
The Vietnamese human puppets were largely uniform in appearance; white skin, black hair pulled into tight buns, and colorful, metallic, painted-on clothing. They didn’t move their limbs much, and were more akin to doll-like figurines, with arms swinging clumsily at their sides. These puppets were not especially detailed or exquisitely crafted; they must go through incredible wear and tear, being immersed in water daily.
Although the pool was built specially for the show, it was often difficult to see the puppets in their lowered aquatic stage. Audience members strained in their seats to watch, and it was tricky to catch small, nuanced exchanges between the characters; the whole production is pretty understated. Blink and you’ll miss stuff.
The puppeteers themselves stood waist-deep in the pool, but were hidden behind the makeshift temple serving as the scenes’ backdrop. It remains a mystery as to how these puppeteers can see what their puppets are doing on the water. Yet the move nimbly, touching figures, holding one another and interacting in other ways.
At the end, the puppeteers — a group of grinning, predominantly young Vietnamese men — waded out from behind the curtain to wave cheerfully at the audience. You got the sense this 1,000-year-old art form won’t lose its appeal anytime soon.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.