The Finger Players couldn't have chosen a more apt production to celebrate their 15th birthday.
This swirling historical epic about one puppetry group's struggle to survive - through decades of wars, purges, revolutions, famines and unpopularity - goes to the very core of why artists create art, and the sacrifices that this choice demands. It is at once a parallel universe and a crystal ball to The Finger Players' own history, with its own sets of struggles and triumphs. Turn By Turn We Turn was first staged three years ago, and has been revived for the homegrown company's anniversary season of 'greatest hits'.
A puppet master (Ong Kian Sin), consumed by his love for traditional Chinese hand puppetry, leads the group he inherited from his father through good times and bad, sometimes forced to make unpopular decisions - should they perform at a defector's lavish dinner party in World War Two, or choose to starve?
Running in tandem with this 80-year story arc are lively puppet performances based on the story of the mischievous and charming Monkey King, who thwarts enemies but is also carried away by his own over-confidence. The ensemble performs these segments with stunning precision, having been trained by Chinese puppet masters Li Yi Hsin and the late Li Bo Fen.
The choreography is exquisite, from the Monkey King's twirling of his new-found weapon, to the flutter of a fan to cover a puppet's tiny face. The lo-fi effects are jaw-dropping, and compel us to suspend our disbelief and embrace the magic of the stage.
This is the second time that I am watching this rousing and heart-rending masterpiece. Turn By Turn We Turn clinched Production of the Year at the 2012 Life! Theatre Awards, and with three years' distance, it is easy to see why.
There is a timelessness to this production and to the questions it asks of art: Is it worth it to pursue an art form when a country is in turmoil and there are larger issues of nationhood at stake? Or to continue to perform when the audience's interest in the traditional arts is all but lost? There are some heavy-handed overtures as to the philosophy of art-making, but the succinctness of the Chinese language turns the didactic to the poetic, even if some of these turns of phrase are lost in translation. These eternal dilemmas of art-making are very confronting, whether taken as the mountainous challenges faced by the fictional troupe, or what arts groups actually face today.
There is a gap between the dexterity of the more established ensemble members - the likes of Goh Guat Kian, Ang Hui Bin, Tan Wan Sze, Ian Loy and Jo Kwek, and especially Finger Players co-founder Ong as the protagonist with some incredible movement work - and a younger quartet of Finger Player apprentices who are new to the production. They sometimes lack the emotional nuances and the precision of their predecessors, but they all carry a fierce commitment to their roles, and the result is a tightly-knit ensemble pulling off a beautiful performance larger than themselves.
In that sense, this production of Turn also tells a larger story about succession in the arts, and about nurturing a younger generation to continue the good work of the generation that went before.
The four new cast members are emerging artists who are part of The Finger Players' apprenticeship scheme. Here is a puppet troupe passing its skills down to an eager next generation, which will hopefully avoid the difficult fate of their fictional counterparts, whose craft is fading from public consciousness.
Here's to the next 15 years of The Finger Players; may their world continue to turn.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
TURN BY TURN WE TURN
Where: Drama Centre Black Box
When: Till Oct 12. Tue to Sun at 8pm, Sat at 3 and 8pm
Admission: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
Info: Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles