First-graders at Dedham Country Day School had a chance last Tuesday morning to check out some new foreign dolls – the kinds most American youngsters have never seen before.
With the pull of a string, a female red and green angel with a soothing expression in her eyes raises her wings. A snake swims along, a fisherman pulls his catch out of the pond, and a wooden cat grabs a duck. There are also a large bright-red fish made of rubber, a painted duck, and a middle-aged Buddha-like man with a bulging belly.
These are puppets that will tell traditional folk stories from the daily life of Vietnamese farmers in the water puppetry theater at the Dedham school’s annual fair Saturday. The plays will be performed by a group of artists from Vietnam, who have been staying in what used to be the headmaster’s house on the school’s property as artists in residence.
On Tuesday, the puppeteers gave the first-graders a sneak peek. Although communication was sometimes limited by the language barrier, the children couldn’t get enough of the wooden dolls, and each boy and girl wanted to hold one.
“I like that they are colorful and shiny and they have lots of bright colors,” said Ilona Perry, 7, whose favorite was the biggest one, a man with a basket to carry fish on his shoulders. “I like the faces because they have great expressions on their faces. They are funny, some of them.”
Woodworking instructor Gerry Clifford said he was impressed with the handmade puppets, and hopes to be able to start making some of the simpler ones, like the snake, with his students.
“A machine could not duplicate that,” he said. “I am very inspired. I think we’re going to jump right into it. I can definitely see this mushrooming into something.”
Water puppetry is a unique Vietnamese art form. Almost every village in the country has a pond or a lake, and puppeteers stand in waist-deep muddy water behind the screen as they make puppets move on the water’s surface. It is important that the water is not transparent, so that it can hide the stick on which the puppets are manipulated, puppeteer Chu Luong explained through a translator.
Luong is a stage director with the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theater in Hanoi, and is famous for developing portable water stages that enable him to bring his puppets into classrooms and audiences around the world.
He has visited hundreds of villages in northern Vietnam to find inspiration for his puppets’ faces.
“Every story told by water puppets is very funny,” explained poet and painter Nguyen Quang Thieu, who will participate in the show. “The idea of the Vietnamese people is to forget what they have to suffer from wars, from hunger, from bad living conditions.”
The plays will be performed to the accompaniment of live traditional Vietnamese music, including a one-stringed guitar called the dan bau and a bamboo flute, as well as traditional opera-like singing, Thieu said.
Luong and Thieu, as well as Luong Tu Duc, a musician, composer, and professor of traditional Vietnamese theater, and poet Nguyen Quyen, came to the United States on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the State Department through the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Kevin Bowen, director of the center, said the organization invites people from Vietnam to the United States every year, particularly Vietnamese writers. This is the first time the center has brought Vietnamese puppeteers to the United States, Bowen said.
“There was a huge curiosity in writing about the war on the US side, so there was an interest in writing about the war on the other side,” he said, adding that the center is interested in exploring the role played by art in postwar healing.
Leslie Bowen, Dedham Country Day School’s director of communications and Kevin Bowen’s wife, said both adults and children are welcome to Saturday’s show. The event will include the annual fair and a silent auction.
Money raised from ticket sales will go into the school’s financial aid budget, she said.