Hanne Tierney, a veteran puppeteer, sees personality in the inanimate. It must be a career hazard for object-theater artists—trying to meet the goggle-eyed look of approaching cars, assuming that pencils get lonely in the drawer. Certainly the rest of us wouldn’t see the possibilities in the pile of silk covering HERE’s floor, but in Strange Tales of Liaozhai, Tierney animates these simple rectangles of fabric, tugging them upward to become convincingly human, then letting them collapse back into a heap when the scene is done. A coquettish six-foot-long strip of Chinese brocade dips a “shoulder”; lengths of silvery chain dance in a circle. It’s an engineering triumph—hundreds of threads keep the panels in motion, all of which are manipulated solely by Tierney and two assistants.
Unfortunately, the rigging challenge trumps every other theatrical element, and the experience remains one of admiration rather than enjoyment. The long introductory act (a projected animation of brush paintings by Hannah Wasileski) starts things in a sleepy mode. Tierney’s main event moves, if possible, even more slowly as she tries to narrate and manipulate her puppets simultaneously. Her story, a supernatural tale borrowed from an 18th-century Chinese anthology, lengthens painfully and loses its loveliness. Tierney’s voiceover is distracted and repetitive and, I think, ultimately unnecessary. Perhaps she could have turned completely toward abstraction, as Basil Twist did in his spectacular dancing-fabric Symphonie Fantastique. Certainly Jane Wang’s live composition, played on everything from toy piano to cello to musical sculpture, would have made a fascinating accompaniment had it wafted there all on its own.—Helen Shaw