There’s a magisterial simplicity to aesthetic of Book of Mountains and Seas, a sung-through piece created by puppeteer/director Basil Twist and composer/librettist Huang Ruo, and performed by six puppeteers, twelve singers from the Trinity Church Wall Street Choir, and two percussionists with a vast array of instruments. Four segments correspond to four separate mythological stories that originated in the 4th century B.C., but the narrative is only loosely sketched (for English-speaking audiences, anyway; the libretto is in Chinese) by supertitles. The singers, all dressed in black velvet robes that disappear in the backdrop, are seen–when visible at all–as floating uplit faces, and the puppets, too, are abstract and imagistic, with one major image theme per story. Structural elements in Twist’s puppets recur and are repurposed, linking the segments together: round paper lanterns seem at first to be eggs in a nest, then eyes in a giant’s face, then sun and moon, then a menacing horde of angry suns. Swathes of fabric represent rivers and seas, but also fabric appended from a stick becomes both a ghost and a bird in one story. Dun-colored shapes that look like weathered tree limbs or long-buried bones form the outlines of mountains, seaborne debris, a bow and arrow, and in the piece’s climactic final story, the limbs of a giant.
The stories, too, are simple: A creation myth of the world birthed from a cosmic egg. A spirit bird tries to take revenge against the sea. Ten suns decide to visit the Earth at once, scorching most living things on the planet, until nine of them are shot down by a god. (The sequence in which the suns orbit in one at a time, so subtly that you’re not sure another one has actually appeared until you count them, is utterly simple and yet conveys the story.) And in the final segment, a giant chases the sun to find where it goes at night, draining all the bodies of water in his path. They’re not sequential, and yet an uneasy energy builds, the elegant patterns in movement and music offset by hints of menace; when the ten suns encroach upon the audience, it’s a little unnerving. And when the puppeteers build the giant in the fourth scene, and he starts to run in place in his futile effort to chase the sun, it’s haunting and breathtaking.
I know even less about Chinese classical music than I do about Western opera, but the combination of an ensemble trained in Western liturgical music and the different tonality of Ruo’s compositions feels fruitful at conveying tone, mood, and pacing to me, shifting from cajoling to confiding to jarring. As with opera, I don’t know enough about the history and the structure to even judge the music. And the percussion elements are used as an effective counterpoint.
Twist’s direction and overall production design keep the focus on the puppets, which often seem to float in a black void. The simple lighting design concept (Poe Saegusa did the design) of having the singers control the uplighting of their own faces means they can be anywhere onstage, appearing and disappearing as needed, ebbing and building in numbers when the harmonies and the visuals call for it. The puppeteers, likewise dressed in black, are mostly invisible in the darkness, until the majestic final sequence when they build, operate, and then dissipate the giant out of the elements that have appeared throughout.
The moment of peak synthesis falls back into disparate elements, in a way that feels oddly ominous: a determined living being disintegrated back into the elements of nature. These myths have lived for centuries and they may yet tell the story of civilization’s demise as much as its creation: as sea levels rise, we fail to take revenge on the water; as scorching heat and wildfires increase, the dangers of the sun feel all too real.