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Hardboiled and hard-edged 

This city comes alive in the dark. Neon gleams off wet asphalt and concrete as the night's rain tries to wash away the dirt and detritus of everyday life. But the rain leaves behind the human grit of intrigue. It's everywhere.

While a hooker contemplates the meaning of love and passion on the roof of a nondescript high-rise, a cabbie winds his way through mean streets. His fares, a man and woman, look straight ahead, saying nothing. The man's hand wanders to the woman's knee. In silence, she removes it. The taxi swerves violently, forcing the couple together, if only for a moment.

It's another sweltering night in Taipei.

Exploring underbellies

Until now performed only in Taiwan, Taipei by Night is coming to the Cornerstone Arts Theater at the Colorado College from May 9 through 13. The play's inspired by American film noir, with twists of jazz and traditional kabuki-style storytelling, and it blends live action, video and music. And puppets.

But don't expect Lamb Chop or Shari Lewis to make an appearance. In fact, it's best if your younger kids don't make an appearance, either, as the show is intended for an adult audience.

One stage direction overheard during a recent rehearsal: "Hands! It looks like you're having rough sex. It's supposed to be sensual sex."

You get the picture.

The production is the brainchild of CC adjunct associate drama professor Clinton Turner Davis and Robin Ruizendaal, artistic director of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company in Dadaocheng. Ruizendaal also works as director and curator of the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum of Taiwan, considered home to the world's most complete collection of puppets.

The pair met in Taipei in 2007, when Davis found himself in need of an authentic 19th-century Chinese-style puppet. "I was doing some work on a puppet demonstration and show in the artists' village of Taipei," explains Davis, perhaps known best around here for his recent, well-received run of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at TheatreWorks. "I needed a particular kind of puppet for the exhibition, and several people mentioned Robin."

Ruizendaal oversees a collection of more than 10,000 puppets, and had the very thing. Over lunch, he agreed to let Davis use it for his show, and the two became friends and collaborators.

In 2010, they produced a play called Peregrinaco for Taipei audiences. When Davis returned to Taiwan in summer 2011, he and Ruizendaal and Shanshan Wu, the director of strategic planning and a director for the company, put together Taipei by Night. They debuted it in Taipei last October, but when the curtain came down on the final show, Davis wasn't quite finished.

Instead, he imported it to the CC campus, bringing Ruizendaal, Wu and several members of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company with him. With their help, CC offered a traditional puppeteering course this spring — the culmination of which is the student-staged Taipei by Night.

The production has been tweaked in the past couple months, but still explores the "underbellies of business, politics and the media," as Ruizendaal puts it. "It is modern, total theater," he adds, "and it's very accessible."

The story follows a taxi driver who gets mixed up in the corruption that takes place when politics meets the mob. The cabbie's ex-wife is a news reporter working to expose the corruption, and somewhere along the way she gets romantically involved with one of the detectives who is investigating the whole thing.

The play examines the corruption of unchecked power and influence, as well as personal relationships — demonstrated when the pair of lonely hands mentioned earlier meet atop an apartment complex, and, to director's orders, caress sensually.

Staging and music

In appearance, the puppets of Taipei by Night fall somewhere in between the classic sock puppets of children's play and more contemporary, Muppet-like creations. They are busts only, worn high on the chests of the puppeteer. They can blink, and their eyes can move around in their sockets, but the rest of the articulation comes from the puppeteer's actual hands, arms and legs. As Ruizendaal points out, they fall within Taiwan's "centuries-old tradition of glove puppets."

But he and Davis have certainly modernized traditional puppet theater. The set of Taipei by Night is composed of what appears as a giant, austere white cube. Within the cube is a series of "floors" or platforms that function as stages upon which the action takes place.

Some of that action is performed only in shadows created by backlighting the movable white screens that make up the sides of the cube. Silhouettes dance, flirt and fight in one moment, and in the next, stage hands remove a couple screens to expose the set of a newsroom. Projection onto the screens transforms the set into the bustling nightscape of Taipei. Outside the cube, the black-clad puppeteers bring their characters to life, yet remain silent.

"We've kept to the traditional kabuki theater design," says Davis. "The set rotates, and the narration and dialogue are performed by two actors on the side of the stage."

A man and woman narrate the entire show, including the dialogue between the various characters. It takes choreography and precision timing to make all the elements work together. From the elaborate backlighting and video cues to the voice narration and live music, every movement, sound and line is timed to the second.

"One of the challenges is trying to keep up with the rhythm and syncopation of the city," says CC music professor Ryan Bañagale, who is responsible for the jazz score.

In a sense, that's what viewers will be asked to do as well. Along the way, they may be able to absorb some of the intangibles that make noir such an alluring, recurring and enigmatic story form. As cinema historian Mark Bould has written of film noir, "like the femme fatale, [it] is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always just out of reach."

scene@csindy.com

  • The puppets of Taipei by Night cross oceans, cultures and each other.

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