China’s answer to ‘War Horse’: ‘Papa’s Time Machine’ to debut in April

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/16 17:58:39

Ma Liang (center) introduces the puppets from his show at the China Shanghai International Arts Festival in October 2016. Photos: Courtesy of Ma Liang

A table displays the parts used for the puppets in Papa's Time Machine. Photo: Courtesy of Ma Liang

Promotional material for Papa's Time Machine  Photo: Courtesy of Ma Liang

An international production that makes intriguing use of hand-made puppets, the mechanic puppet show Papa's Time Machine is looking to challenge the stereotype that puppet shows are just for children.

Scheduled to debut in Beijing on April 21 at the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center, the performance is nothing like the puppet shows to which parents usually take their children.

Instead of the mini-sized marionettes placed against a plain screen, the show brings in life-sized mechanical puppets on a stage filled with real gears and wheels in a steampunk-style fantasy.

With puppet artist consultants, video and costume designers from Hungry and Germany on the team, the show has taken on a feel that is sure to appeal to foreign artistic tastes. According to a press release from the production, theater veterans including Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, have praised the show's combination of drama play and puppet show.

Not a children's story

The play focuses on a man, Ma Guji, who invents a time machine to help his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, to retrieve his lost memories. The play wasn't never intended for children right from the start, according to Ma Liang, the show's artistic director and chief puppet designer.

"It is about memories and death, so right from the beginning we knew it would be hard for children to understand the story," Ma told the Global Times on March 6. "And when we designed the puppets, we didn't factor in for children's tastes."

"But during the pre-screenings we did find that child audiences loved our show. It probably comes down to the magic of puppets," Ma said.

Ma explained that the play was inspired by his own personal experiences.

The choice of topic also reflects the increasing discussion about Alzheimer's in TV shows and films in China in recent years as well as a growing awareness about the condition among the general populace.

Stage magic

The puppets are without a doubt the highlights of the production. "All puppets were hand-made by me and my team," Ma said. "It was a painstaking process since a single puppet consists of thousands of parts."

The team spared no effort when it came to their designs. The puppets were broken down and remade several times in order to make them fit the show's plot and the puppeteers' performances better. 

A photographer by trade, Ma said that the production was especially challenging for him since it is his first stage production. He explained that the show has been in the works for three years. 

"I love puppets. I used them a lot in my photography works."

The show's music has also been a pleasant surprise as well, according to reviews of the production's Shanghai premiere last year.

"The music at the premiere goes so well with the play. Though it is not the final version, I would like to watch it  several more times!" renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun was quoted in the production's press release.

International potential

This is not the first time that life-sized puppets have made their way to the stage. British stage show War Horse is a perfect example of this combination.

Making use of life-sized horse puppets, the 2007 UK National Theater production became a worldwide hit soon after its debut. In China, both the original show and Chinese version that premiered in 2014 and 2015 respectively were applauded by Chinese audiences.

Papa's Time Machine has the potential to prove that this level of outstanding work can also originate in China as it attracted overseas interest after its debut at the China Shanghai International Arts Festival in October 2016.

Later that month, the show was presented at the New York 2016 ISPA (International Society for the Performing Arts) Congress, becoming the first Chinese production to do so in a decade.

On his website, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker S. Leo Chiang called the show "a haunting, magical, autobiographical stage performance."

Newspaper headline: Chinese steampunk

Posted in: THEATER

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