Child's play

Deities with strings attached.

THE FANTASTIC VOYAGE OF MARCO POLO

Northwest Puppet Center, 9123 15th N.E., 523-2579, $6.50-$8.50 7:30 p.m. Fri.; 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. runs Fri., Oct. 5-Sun., Oct. 28

FISH AND MERMAIDS emerge from 2,000 pounds of water on the Northwest Puppet Center's newly renovated stage, operated by long, elaborate rods held under the pool. Water shoots up like a fountain, falls to make rain, even squirts from an elephant's trunk. Shaking hands here is risky; everyone's palms are damp.

"We haven't sprung a leak—yet," notes master puppeteer Stephen Carter.

That word "yet" seems to be key: Nothing quite like this has yet been done. But the story of Marco Polo is a natural vehicle for an East-meets-West collaboration with the center's guest artist, Yang Feng, a fifth-generation master of traditional Chinese hand puppetry. Drawing upon the methods of Vietnamese water puppets and merging them with European-style marionettes, the Carters (Stephen, his wife Chris, and their son Dmitri) and Feng employ a mishmash of traditions to create a fantasy-embellished historical spectacle.

Cute, but isn't it still kid stuff? After all, most performances will be for grade-school groups or the regular swarms of children that come to weekend matinees. Knowing their audience, the Carters and Feng have filled their show with whimsy, even giving the Italian clown Pulcinello the pole in Polo's gondola. While freely acknowledging it, Stephen insists, "We don't use the term 'children's theater.' Good theater is good theater."

In fact, it takes a global scholar to recognize and appreciate all of the different elements that compose this production. Pulcinello, a character from commedia dell'arte, helps to tell the story, which is peppered with Italian phrases. As Polo progresses, the mythology of the Mediterranean gives way to the Dragon King, and sea battles with pirates are staged in the manner of the elaborate water spectacles once popular at European courts. Feng's expertise comes into play in the scenes at the Khan's court, where the brilliant costume, dance, and music of Asia fill the miniature stage.

So why doesn't puppetry attract more adult regard? Its animation of the inanimate certainly inspires our fear—and actually keeps Christian fundamentalists away.

"It's curious how scary they find it," Chris Carter puzzles, considering the occasion a school district once banned a show for its devils. "Beelzebub was under our control."

In Feng's home of Fujian, a puppet play remains a part of some special temple ceremonies, bringing deities to life. "Even if no one is watching," Feng explains, "it doesn't matter because the gods are watching." But even in China, he says, the increasing competition from film and television has pushed puppetry to a children's entertainment.

Neither Feng nor the Carters seem unhappy with the reduced place their shamanistic art occupies in today's culture.

"We take a populist bent and we like to make things that are accessible," Stephen says. "There are people who do avant-garde puppetry; I've dabbled in it, but I'm trying to make a living."

Even if it is "only" child's play, this production of Marco Polo's voyages proves to be thoughtful, creative, quality work. That's rare enough to be deserving of our attention; Seattle's stages are filled with enough "serious" efforts that grasp falteringly toward significance. The small adjustment of expectations needed to enjoy the deceptive naﶥt頯f a puppet show is well worth it.

"It's better than all the other art forms," Stephen insists boldly, "because you get to do everything. It's the best place to be if you love the arts in general."

Perhaps the word will seep out.

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