Taiwan has a glorious tradition of puppetry. And while cultural commentators often seem eager to wring their hands at the erosion of the country’s traditional culture, efforts to preserve, and build upon, this tradition have not been without success. And for one puppeteer at least, Taiwan is an oasis in a world where puppetry is increasingly marginalized.
Massimo Godoli Peli came to Taiwan first as a performer with Teatro del Drago, an Italian puppet troupe. For the past 11 years, he has remained here as a member of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company (台原偶戲團). While living in Taiwan, he has created his own interpretation of Italian puppetry for local audiences, which is currently being showcased in Pulcinella. The performance is playing at the Natou Theater of the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theater Museum (林柳新紀念偶戲博物館) every Saturday until April 28.
As a professional puppeteer from a very different tradition to that of Taiwan’s, Peli has found much to love here. More than anything else, he applauds the wide appeal of puppetry in Taiwan.
“When you make a traditional puppet show [in Italy], only children watched. It is difficult to play this kind of show for university students or grown-ups, as you can in Taiwan,” Peli said. “ In Italy, the children would watch, but the grown-ups would go to the back and chat or have a drink. In Taiwan, even the adults watch the show.”
Working with the Taiyuan Puppet Theater Company, Peli has found a role helping to develop shows like Pulcinella, one in a series of Italian-themed performances that he has adapted for Taiwan.
Pulcinella is a character from traditional Neapolitan puppet theater and is a distant relation to the Punch of England’s Punch and Judy. Stupid and lazy, Pulcinella is constantly getting into trouble with his wife, who wants him to pull his socks up and earn a proper living. The humor is broad and there is a good deal of comic violence; there is also plenty of room for improvisation.
Where: Nadou Theater (納豆劇場), 79 Xining N Rd, Taipei City (台北市西寧北路79號)
When: April 13, April 20 and April 27 at 3:30pm
Admission: Tickets are NT$200, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw
Although the Taiyuan Puppet Theater Company is best known for its bold experimental puppet theater productions that span East and West and mix multimedia with many kinds of traditional and innovative new puppets, it does much more than simply create experimental theater for the art house crowd. As a museum, it aims to develop interest in traditional puppet theater as well.
Peli’s productions provide a different perspective on traditional puppetry, but calibrated as they are to appeal to Taiwanese families, they are a long way from Italian tradition.
“If they [old school Italian puppeteers] saw my show, they would probably kill me,” Peli said. The audience of families with young children at last week’s show had no such thoughts, delighting in the action as Pulcinella gets beaten by his wife for napping when he should be working, and for seeking out the services of a fortune-teller to show him the way to easy riches.
The puppets are carved by craftsmen at the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theater Museum based on pictures provided by Peli. They are quite different from the fine-featured puppet heads of Taiwanese opera, and have a character uniquely their own. With plenty of broad humor and gags that even the youngest children have little trouble responding to, the mood of Peli’s shows is also very different to what most Taiwanese audiences are used to. Peli does all the dialogue, switching between Mandarin, English and Italian, mixing it up in all sorts of ways to give a unique atmosphere of multicultural fun.