Talk of puppet theater usually brings to mind stories of ancient bearded heroes or Taiwanese tales that are hard for a foreign audience to appreciate. But TTT Puppet Theater has embarked on a new genre of the art form with its latest offering, Only Daughter, playing tonight through Sunday.
Only Daughter differs from traditional puppet theater by putting an actor onstage with the puppet. The largely autobiographical tale is the story of Shan-shan and her mother, a single mother raising her only child in 1970s Taiwan. Actress Wu Shan-shan (伍姍姍) plays her mother while her childhood self is a puppet operated by Massimo Godoli Peli.
Wu's childhood is certainly the stuff of drama. Her mother moved to Taiwan from Beijing at aged 21 with a soldier from the Chinese Nationalist (KMT) air force. They lived in Pingtung until their separation and divorce, when the mother moved north and began working odd jobs. She married Wu's father, a retired general and had her first and only child when she was 40.
"I got my name, which means `late arriving' because I came very late in my parents' lives."
Her mother divorced again at age 50 and it's the years that follow which are the focus of Only Daughter.
"Surviving as a single mother in 1970s Taiwan was very hard," Wu said. Not only was divorce socially unacceptable, but it was difficult for a woman to get work. My mother was a city girl from Beijing and very sociable. To survive, she opened a mahjong house."
In those days, of course, it was illegal to turn your house into a mahjong parlor and Wu spent her early teens living with the threat of losing her mother. "I always had to answer the door in case it might be the police," she said. "Depending on the officer, they might demand money or even want to arrest my mother. Once, she spent the night in jail."
"Having a mahjong house was like being the owner of a small club," she said. "You had to arrange for at least four people to play every night, provide cigarettes and tea, depending on what people wanted, and dinner. Dinner was very important. ?You played 16 games and it cost NT$150, quite a lot of money in those days."
Wu has played autobiographical roles during her extensive training as an actor but had never played her own mother. Of bringing her unorthodox childhood to the stage, she said that she feels very moved during many parts of the performance. "It's already been 20 years since that time. I'm a mother myself now. I understand both parts better."
With the exception of a single pre-recorded monologue, the puppet girl remains silent throughout the play, though Wu shares the stage with Peli, the puppeteer.
"[Peli] is sensitive and feels the text," Wu said.
That text was written by TTT Puppet Theater director Robin Ruizendaal, who gave several reasons for wanting to put Wu's story on the boards.
"It has the dramatic elements of a complex relationship ... and it' s about trying to survive in a hostile and difficult environment," he said.
Also important for Ruizendaal and the TTT Puppet Theater is the fact that the play easily travels across international borders. It will be performed in Mandarin here, but will be translated into English for performances abroad.
TTT is often invited to perform overseas. After its premiere here in Taiwan, Only Daughter will travel to the Macau Fringe Festival next month.