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Vietnamese Water Puppets TrAn Van Khe Adapted and translated from the French by Phillipa Wehle A form with its roots in the tenth century, "Mua RO67Nu6c" is today the only water puppet theatre in the world. Yet until recently, this unique form of theatrical expression was virtually unknown outside of the few villages along the Red River Delta in North Vietnam where it has been practiced for hundreds of years during feast days and seasonal celebrations. The "Mula R6/ Nu6c" was brought to France and Italy in March of 1984 through the auspices of La Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris and La Maison de la Culture de la Seine-Saint-Denis. The "MWa R6rNu6c," or "Puppet Dances on Water," are shows put on by a small number of village "corporations" or "societies" composed of peasants and farmers who continue to carry on the secret traditions of making and manipulating puppets handed down to them by their forefathers. Preparations for puppet performances are painstaking and elaborate. Stages are built in the middle of selected ponds; a complex system of stakes strung with wires is set up and wooden puppets representing a large variety of characters are readied for the re-enactment of as many as 200 different scenes or stories concerning the trades and leisure activities of village life, interspersed with visitations from supernatural beings and creatures (fairies, dragons, unicorns and the like). Philippa Wehle 73 1. THE WATER PUPPETS The "MV16a Rol Nuoc" are unlike any other puppets (hand, string or rod) used in theatrical presentations. They are generally about 16 inches high but some, for example, those of the Nguyen Puppet Theatre in the Thai Binh province, are much larger: their fairy puppet is 2-3/4 feet high and their large fish is 3-1/2 feet long. Each puppet is composed of two parts: the body (thin)which is seen above water, and the "support" or base (d6) which is under water. They are simple in appearance (only the head and the arms are movable; the legs are either fixed or replaced altogether by cotton pants or a large skirt). Both the body and the support are usually made of a single piece of wood although cloth is used for serpents and dragons. The puppets are multi-colored, and protected with a vegetable base paint which gives them a distinctive lacquered look. They represent a wide range of characters: peasant laborers, woodsmen, boatmen and fisherman, robust wrestlers, nasty looking highwaymen and brave warriors; humble peasants culling rice or playing village games; graceful dancers, and real and mythical animals, from fish, ducks and foxes to phoenixes and unicorns fighting over a ball of silk. The most beautiful puppet of all, however, is Teu, the Presenter, the indispensable leader of the show. A jolly, fat peasant, bald but for three tufts of hair and naked but for a vest and a G-string, he's the character who jokes with the audience and acts the buffoon while the chorus urges him to "get on with the show." 11. METHODS OF MANIPULATION There are three methods of operating the water puppets. Some are simply attached to a long bamboo pole (sao), dipped in the water and pulled out again by a manipulator located behind a sliding curtain. The large puppets are attached to a round-shaped wooden disc which serves as a float attached to the bamboo poles. These floats often have rudders as well. Other large puppets are also attached to bamboo poles but they have a roundshaped wooden disc which serves as a float. These may also have rudders which help the manipulator guide the puppet through the water. A more complex system of manipulation has the pole attached to the puppet by means of wires threaded through the float and connected to different parts of the puppet's body. These wires are made of copper, silk, flax or twisted hairs. They are covered with a layer of beeswax to make them waterproof. The operator moves the puppets back and forth with the pole while his fingers control the arms and head with slow, gently flowing movements. 74 OPERATORS AND PUPPETS MAY DAY, ROPE MECHANISM 75...


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