Puppetmaster brings avante-garde theater to Taiwan

Adam Ende and Yu-chen Lin prepare for a dress rehearsal Sunday afternoon in Shijr. Photo: Trista di Genova
Trista di Genova
Special to the China Post

Somewhere in Shijr, in an oddly peaceful arts enclave called the Dream Community, in the heart of the civil engineer’s nightmare that lies east of Taipei, you can catch one of the last performances this weekend of the world-class, tri-lingual “Foreskin Show” by mad puppetmaestro Adam Ende and Renjianbao Theater (人間包偶戲院).

The show is eye-opening, often hilarious in its hyperbole, poking fun at “fine foreskin purses” (bao pi pi bao) and the “underground African foreskin trade.” It fearlessly tackles the serious but seldom-discussed topic of male circumcision, revealing it for the senseless medical practice that it is.

The plot is based on a world cultural tour, masterfully incorporating a myriad of multimedia, with kaleidoscopic cultural contributions by the “international puppet family” that is Renjianbao Theater: American (Ende), Taiwanese (punk rock drummer Yu-chen Lin, whose drole voice narrates the show) and Mexican (Tomas Lopez).

It begins as a Monkey King-inspired journey to Mexico, leads us to a Jewish bris (circumcision ceremony/party) in Brooklyn, and returns to Taiwan for a filmed segment in which Lin, a mock reporter in a rabbitsuit brandishing a radish as microphone, “protests” the presence of an “anti-sex conspiracy headquarters” in Taipei 101.

At this point, several kids distribute leaflets to the audience urging “boys and girls of the world unite:” “It’s the secret international anti-sex conspiracy who are behind this – they are the only ones who hate the wiener so much.”

One of Ende's Kafkaesque inspirations, a pig puppet.
“People in Taipei are so polite, (Taipei 101 guards) actually looked for the office and couldn’t find it,” Ende joked after Sunday’s show.

The idea for the show was Yu-chen’s, he said. “I kept complaining to her about circumcision, and how sad it is they do that to little kids. She said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about baopi (foreskins)?’”

Although the show “wasn’t designed for children,” it was performed privately for a class of youngsters; also, the Taipei Culture Bureau and small museum operators in Taiwan.

“People seem to be really enjoying this show, laughing a lot. People get it, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Ende has embarked on a mission of propagating experimental theater worldwide. He describes himself as “an itinerant puppeteer” from New York, New Jersey and the Seattle area.

“I spent my life training for this, even though I didn’t know it. As a kid I drew cartoons, dabbled in playing instruments. In college, I studied creative writing, oil painting from a master in the Russian post-impressionist tradition, and pottery. I began making huge puppets for parades and festivals, then worked with another puppeteer. That’s when I realized puppetry is a combination of all the dumb skills I‘ve been developing all my life: drawing, painting, writing, sculpture, music, acting, directing. Puppetry’s not the be all and end all in the world, but it’s a great vehicle in the search.”

Last year, Ende wrote and staged Taiwan’s first production based on the writings of proto-surrealist Franz Kafka. In November, the group went to Thailand, where they adapted tales from local folklore into a puppet street festival (“Hoontown”), and trained the next generation of Thai puppeteers at the Patravadi Theater in Bangkok.

“I wanted to have a team, a puppet family that I can trust, and work with over time. Tomas and Yu-chen came to me, and we’ve become a strong team devoted to working together,” Ende said.

The group returned to Taiwan under the auspices of the Dream Community, staging this production, “Sad, Funny, F*’d Up, Beautiful Puppet World.”

“(Dream Community founder] Gordon Tsai bought this house and provided this space. As a private citizen, he wanted to bring the arts into the community. He doesn’t try to control what we do at all, our content, and that makes for powerful theater.”

Ende finds government-sponsored artists “have no responsibility to take risks.”

“They know if they just keep doing the same boring work, writing the same boring proposals the government will give them money. So they aren’t hungry — they have no incentive to really challenge or surprise their audience, and don’t feel the sacred duty of the performer to entertain,” he said.

The troupe is currently working on a “weird ghost story and historical comedy” that runs next month until July, adapting the Mexican myth of “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), set in the time of the Spanish conquistadors.

In August, they plan to perform at U.S. theater festivals like Isle Wild Festival and Burning Man; tour through Mexico and Central America in September; hit summer festivals in Europe; return to Taiwan to produce a Monkey King show; and eventually head to China.

“We’ve got a mobile puppet theater that’s powered by bikes that are welded together, called ‘The Stagecoach of the Apocalypse,’ about the end of the world,” Ende said. “But all the puppet shows will be based on (messed) up Bible stories. For Mexico, we want that Mexico feeling of old-style cabaret, tequila, mariachi, dancing whores.”

WHAT: Renjianbao Puppet Theater’s “Sad, Funny, Fucked Up, Beautiful Puppet World,” & “La Llorona”
Cast & Musicians: Adam Ende, Yu-chen Lin, Tomas Edgar Luna Lopez, XiaoMo, Xiao Bai and Violent Girl. Ticket Price: 150NT.
WHERE: The Dream Community, No.9, Lane 541, Kang Ning St, Shijr City
MORE INFO: Tel: 02- 2695-4113 and directions/map: www.dreamcommunity.org.tw