The major difference between the Peking Opera, at the tail end of a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center, and the Fujian Hand Puppets, in the middle of a two-night engagement at the Smithsonian's Baird Aduitorium, is size. Both feature a grand, eloquent and visually vibrant spectacle heavy on stylized movement and rooted in tradition. Both feature the broad strokes of opera and the music hall transplanted into uniquely Chinese formats. The difference? The Fujian characters are only a foot tall, magically manipulated by hidden puppet masters who breathe life through their extensions' songs and dances, through their juggling and martial exploits.
The four plays presented last night were of such universal charm and wit that the libretti provided little more than guidance. The high art, derived from a tradition that is more than five centuries old, is contained in the puppets themselves. Made from camphor wood or polished bone and clothed in gorgeous silk costumes, the puppets move with such intense and human grace that one succumbs to their charms and imagines them simply to be tiny people. The illusion is the antithesis of television, which makes people smaller than life. iThe Fujian Hand Puppets transcend their construction and come across larger than anyone could expect.
Within the plays presented one can find a devil who turns into a beautiful woman (some things are universal), furious sword fights, recalcitrant animals, acrobats, hunters, buffoons, vain guards, spoiled princes. They all have carefully delineated characters, defined by costume, coloration and gesture. But it is in the stuble movements -- a cocky saunter, a wanton conyness, an apparent reflex gesture -- that the Fujian Hand Puppets come alive. Some of the things they do, whether shooting a hat off with an arrow or juggling tiny plates on sticks, are absolutely astounding. And the physical wit that pervades the plots needs no translation. Baird Auditorium has a gem, a little theater with a huge heart. The hands deserve a hand.