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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 495-496

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Performance Review

Burmese Puppetry

Burmese Puppetry. By The Mandalay Marionettes. American Museum of Natural History, New York. 22 October 2000.

IMAGE LINK= In the 1970s it was impossible to find a performance of Yokthe Pwe, Burmese Puppetry, anywhere in Burma. This marionette tradition, which traces its roots back long before the earliest records of fifteenth-century performances, had, by the eighteenth century, become an important part of Burmese royal court life. With British colonization in the nineteenth century, however, the form went into decline. It enjoyed a period of revival as a popular tradition in the early part of the twentieth century when puppeteers, who no longer had royal patronage, established themselves in outlying villages. With the Japanese invasion, however, the form declined once again and, owing to other economic, cultural, and political factors in the ensuing years, almost disappeared forever. Thanks to the dedication and energy of people like Daw Ma Ma Niang, founder of the Mandalay Marionettes, and the company's master puppeteer, U Pan Aye, brought out of retirement to perform with and train the company, Yokthe Pwe is once again experiencing a revival in Burma. The combined efforts of Michael Schuster from the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and Arts; Kathy Foley from the University of California, Santa Cruz; and William Fetz from the East-West Center in Hawaii, among others, brought this revival to the United States with a Mandalay Marionettes tour that included Hawaii, New York, and California.

The program, hosted by Schuster, who gave brief introductions to each piece, included six scenes--just a sample of the variety that would be part of an all-night performance in Myanmar (Burma). The scenes were accompanied by the singing of vocalist Daw Aye Shwe and the company's four-member music ensemble playing Burmese instruments: oboe, gongs, cymbals, clappers, and drums. After a lively musical introduction, the troupe presented a traditional opening piece, the dance of a votaress offering bananas and coconuts to the Nats, spirit gods. The painted wooden marionettes, exquisitely decorated in silk costumes, stand from twelve to twenty-four inches tall. Puppeteers, whose upper bodies were visible behind a waist-high, painted backdrop, manipulated the puppets from above. Virtuoso feats punctuated the performance as the [End Page 495] puppeteers skillfully handled marionettes with anywhere from eight to sixteen strings. The second piece of the show, "Himalayan Scene," which symbolized the chaos of the world in the early days of creation, and featured a horse, a monkey, a turtle, a snake-dragon, and ogres, offered a stunning example of the troupe's virtuosity. Two large, green, bejeweled ogres engaged in a fight. As the fight built, they took turns leaping on top of each other, forcing the two puppeteers to enmesh and disentangle their strings repeatedly as they swung the puppets from side to side across the stage. The scene that followed, "The Alchemist," also played on skillful manipulation as it introduced the red- and yellow-clad, bearded figure of a yogi-daoist magician known for his mastery of incredible acrobatic feats. The alchemist performed numerous complete flips in a lively dance and balanced upside down on a stick. The careful and concentrated work of a single puppeteer allowed the alchemist to lose and recapture his stick in the course of the scene. The program also included a dance of royal pages and a comical courting dance between two rural characters, an old bachelor and a spinster.

The New York engagement offered an unscheduled appearance as well. U Tin Maung Cho, a classical Burmese dancer based in New York, performed some "dueling marionettes" with the company. In this classic bit, the human performer mimics the movements of a puppet while a puppeteer pretends to manipulate his invisible strings from above. Dressed as a prince, U Tin Maung Cho danced in competition with a prince marionette. This piece dramatized the view of many scholars and puppeteers that Yokthe Pwe is the source of classical Burmese dance.

Amid all this practiced skill and artistry, the highlight of the program for me came at a less formal moment...


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