As a piece of visual artwork “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” is exquisite, but as a theatrical production it’s somnolent. Conceived, constructed, and performed by Hanne Tierney, the 75-minute show uses gorgeous gently moving images, evocative music, and narration to tell two bizarre 18th-century Chinese folk tales. The first story involves magic pigeons, while the second concerns a forever-laughing daughter of a fox spirit. Told in fairy-tale fashion, the stories seem to contain morals, but each ends abruptly, leaving us puzzled rather than enlightened.
The bigger problem, however, is the production’s lethargic pacing. If we were permitted to attend on our own time to the stunningly beautiful images that are put before us—as one would do in a museum—the whole enterprise might be tremendously gratifying. But here the presentation of the sights is governed by the roles they play as characters (or other story-enhancing elements) in the slowly delivered, far-from-gripping tales.
The pigeon story is heard in a recorded reading by Richard Chang and illustrated by striking projections shown on four large vertical panels. The changing images always form a cohesive whole, yet each is also singly satisfying and complete, often recalling abstract-expressionist paintings by Franz Kline and the like. What we see are filmed images of Hannah Wasileski’s paintings, which were created on a Buddha board, treated paper that turns brush strokes of water into ink that then slowly disappears upon evaporation. The effect is one of images magically appearing and then gracefully fading away, a wondrous combination of painterly and cinematic artistry. Delightfully accompanied by bouncy music composed and played on toy pianos by Jane Wang, the “disappearing” paintings make captivating albeit leisurely storytellers and draw us into the peaceful, otherworldly sensibility of the narrative.
Though equally ravishing to behold, the images employed to represent the second, much longer story fail to sustain interest throughout the time it takes Tierney to tell the tale. Performing double duty, Tierney speaks the narration into a headset microphone as she manipulates a complex system of counterweights involving more than 100 strings. (Shawn Lane and Jamey MacGilvray ably assist her.) The strings are attached to splendiferous panels of Chinese silks, richly colored and intricately embroidered brocades. When at rest the silks reside on the stage floor, forming a soft, lushly textured landscape. But when individual silks are lifted and manipulated like marionettes—expressively twisted, folded, shaken, or collapsed—they become the characters of the story. Wang accompanies this tale with irritating scraping sounds produced on a double bass and metallic instruments of her own invention. While Tierney’s puppetry concept is astoundingly original, and Trevor Brown’s lighting adds to the visual treat, the movement of the silks soon grows repetitious and uninteresting. Ultimately, it’s like driving along a scenic parkway while stuck in the slow lane.
Presented by Here’s Dream Music Puppetry Program and FiveMyles at Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC. Sept. 9–22. Tue.–Sat., 8:30; Sun., 4 and 8:30 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.here.org.
Critic’s Score: C+