by Cat Gilbert
Strings break. They bend. They lead, and they follow (if prompted.) It was physical strings that brought me to Hanne Tierney’s most recent piece “Strange Tale of Liaozhai” at HERE arts center, (as it did many) and it was more metaphorical ones that lead me to learn her rich history as both puppeteer and person. Known for her elaborate puppet rig utilizing (this time) over 114 strings, even Tierney’s herself in an interview for her past work (My Life in a Nutshell) says “80 strings can tangle, can break, can slip out, it’s such a high risk business that I kind of say “Why am I doing this?” Knowing Tierney’s tragic history of losing her son in Sierra Leone and picking up his designated NY space to create a community art gallery (FiveMyles) that has won an Obie for its ability to energize a transition community, it’s easy to see there is very little that truly scares Hanne.
Whether the audience echos the sentiment of “why” or not, they certainly are aware of the elements of “danger” or at least the intricacy involved with watching three dedicated puppeteers manipulate the medieval mechanism (creaky as a ship but with no threat of storm) that Hanne has created. A self-professed “art performer,” who works in galleries as well as theaters, Tierney’s work, while sometimes autobiographical, is also the product of her love affair with Gertrude Stein’s ideal of theater without actors. “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” was aesthetically driven by Stein’s piece “A play called Not and Now,” which employed ball gowns and tuxedos to create a piece which deconstructed the foundations of theater.
“Strange Tales” uses 18th century folktales to tell the stories of a bad trade among a pigeon merchant, and the story of two lovers (one a fox spirit) who struggle for martial bliss. The pigeon piece does so through shadow screens and the hand drawn visual projections of Hannah Wasileski, while the lovers pieces utilizes the inanimate puppet players in the forms of scarves, bamboo, umbrellas and the like. Both pieces were joined by the complex, strange constructions of Jane Wang, who played a setup that rivaled the string mechanism of the puppeteers in its visual interest and sound. The stories though slow, are poignant and worth the patience of watching, however anyone who has seen (or heard) Hanne’s work, knows that a good portion of the engagement of the audience relies on her beautifully subtle, slightly accented narration, and on the puppeteer’s ghost within the machine movements. The genius behind creating something that resembles the interior of a grand piano, complete with string manipulators is almost enough to capture audience for the full hour in itself.
The “new” puppets in the piece (many of Tierney’s older “puppets”-bamboo poles, beaded curtains made appreciated cameo appearances), were mostly the silk scarves which made up the bulk of the cast. The stage itself was cloaked in purposefully laid cloth, and each main character was represented in choice colors, that changed pattern with movement and time across the stage and in the plotline; the overly doting mother in deep reds and pinks, the brash, fickle uncle in blacks and blues, the young lovers in pinks, sky blues and rainbows, and the fox spirit, a satiny silver.
Jane Wang’s setup included a variety of musical instruments (perquisite toy pianos included) but the most interesting moments came when she engaged the “space plates” (metal plates balanced on balloons, balanced in plastic containers), and more simply in her playing of the upright bass which she plucked to create beautiful movement and drama within the puppet pieces. Jamey McGilray and Shawn Lane helped manipulate the puppet strings and did so with a great amount of grace and ease.
“Strange Tales of Liaozhai” the book certainly relies on a great amount of history (with humans or no) to appreciate its tales and appropriately enough Hanne’s work is no different. Woven within the strings she pulls there are connections to both her past apprenticeship at a spinning wheel factory, her ability to see more than mundane in simple machinery, and her choice to move forward even and sometimes because of the great danger within.
Strange tales of Liaozhai runs through September 22nd at HERE Arts Center. Tickets are available here.