THE PIRATE WIDOW CHENG created by the company, directed by Mark Cassidy, with David Powell and Ann Powell. Presented by Puppetmongers at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Runs to March 10, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18-$25, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
the puppetmongers' first show for adults, The Pirate Widow Cheng, draws on a fascinating episode from early 19th-century Chinese history, in which Shih Yang took control of her late husband's pirate forces and nearly quelled the royal navy she fought. Clever as brother-and-sister puppeteers David and Ann Powell are, in spinning a yarn about political and economic necessity, ruthlessness and human desire, they aren't able to make everything work for them.
The production, directed by Mark Cassidy, has the charm that marks Puppetmongers' family works. Here, the puppets range from faceless sticks with a drapery of clothing -- costume designer Wendy White is wonderfully inventive here -- and half-human figures to the central characters, the only ones with faces. Working with choreographer Yvonne Ng, the Powells give the stiff figures, especially Shih Yang, elegant and sinuous movements.
But the storytelling isn't clear. Sometimes it's hard to sort out the characters, and transitions from one episode to the next aren't always smooth. Still, there's lots to entertain here, including a rod-puppet kung fu sequence that sends up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a courting scene that's both touching and wordless, a spectacular shadow-puppet battle and -- best of all -- the pirate takeover of a miniature village of wooden blocks, whose inhabitants are twigs and bits of wood.
I wish the show had more of that kind of magic.