AROUND 121 B.C., WU TI, THE FOURTH SOVEREIGN of the Han Dynasty, was distraught over the death of his favorite concubine. He begged his necromancer, Shao Weng, to bring back his dead beloved. Weng, who was as much of an artist-trickster as any man of the cloth, rigged up a tent divided by a silk scrim. In front of the scrim was the grief-stricken emperor. Behind the scrim was Weng, a candle, and a cut-out image of the dead girl. When Weng passed the cut-out silhouette between the candle and the scrim, the emperor saw, through the thick, incensey haze of the tent, what he wanted to see: the ghost of his beloved.

Two thousand years after this very first shadow play, the Seattle Asian Art Museum has mounted a small exhibit of Chinese shadow puppets, and Seattle playwright Scot Augustson has created the smart, hilarious Sgt. Rigsby and His Amazing Silhouettes.

The shadow play is religious in origin. As Wu Ti tried to see his dead mistress in a shadow, so too did most early Chinese audiences long to see the ghosts of the dead ancestors they worshipped. The SAAM exhibit explains that shadow theater had become a thriving entertainment by the Sung dynasty (960-1279). Guilds of professional puppeteers, both women and men, put on shows for three reasons: to please the gods, to exorcise demons, and to amuse and bring good fortune to the people. Stories with titles like "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" told of the supernatural adventures of deities and demons; others, like "The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid," were about earthly, comic characters.

The puppets at SAAM, though made in the late 19th century, differ little from the ancient ones: brightly painted puppets cut from the treated, translucent rawhide of sheep, donkey, or ox. Their bodies are usually jointed, and almost always have a detachable head. A typical puppet troupe has about 100 bodies and 1,000 heads.

These puppets are beautiful. So delicately cut. With teeny-tiny wrinkles for the face of an old woman. Teeny-tiny dots for a pockmarked man. Huge, perfectly striated clouds in which immortals fly around. You think how careful someone had to be with the knife. You think of how old these stories are.

One of the stories they have at SAAM is about an honest young farmer who finds a large clam and brings it home. His house is a mess because he is a bachelor. Then he goes out, and when he comes home his house is all clean! Because inside the large clam is really the Goddess of the White River in the Milky Way, and she has cleaned his apartment for him! Yes, this is the plot for the venerable old Chinese shadow puppet play.

But it could be a Sgt. Rigsby story: the ridiculous plot, the dopey sexual entendre, the dubious morality, the general stupidity. A clam, for god's sake.

Sgt. Rigsby was conceived a little over a year ago, when Scot Augustson was asked to perform something for a Printer's Devil benefit at Re-bar. Augustson wanted to do something set in the 18th or 19th century, but didn't want to deal with all the costumes. Then he remembered Victorian shadow puppetry. European shadow theater developed from the live theater of the commedia dell'arte of 16th-century Italy, and the English Punch and Judy puppet shows. Augustson knew using shadow puppets would solve the costume problem and allow a small cast to more easily perform multiple parts. He also figured, given the happy reception of Punch and Judy--those slaphappy comedies of spousal abuse--puppets would make it easier to get away with cruelty and a lot of really stupid sex jokes.

The first time I saw a Sgt. Rigsby performance, I became a fan for life. I loved the way the platitudes of Victorian piety were mixed so effortlessly with the potty-mouthed squawks of TV-watching American brats. Though Augustson does all the writing of the edifying scripts, with names like "The Horse on the Moors: A Christian Parable," "Tales for the Stout of Heart," and "Naughtie Taties," the latter a story about potatoes--the ideas often spontaneously erupt over a dinner table or out on a walk with one of his Sgt. Rigsby cohorts.

Augustson's colleagues include some of the best actors in Seattle independent theater: Keri Healey, Stephen Hando, Bret Fetzer, Tom Milewski, Elizabeth Stetson. In any performance each of these actors will play a number of parts--sickly kid dying of TB, senile grandma, sadistic pigtailed child, boozy tart, aged widow, randy monkey, vicar. Augustson has a perfect ear for parodying the pomposities of Anglophiles. He is also a maniac during performance, scooting around behind his homemade portable scrim on knee pads, whipping his puppets--up to 50 per story--in and out of the light. The five or six actors stand beside the scrim, visible to the audience, and read their multiple parts by flashlight. Like the clam in the Chinese story, not all the characters are human. Rigsby subjects have included a donkey, a monkey, a mushroom, an asteroid, Godzilla, and a chorus line of flying penises.

Chinese shadow puppetry may have begun with an attempt to make an audience believe in a supernatural presence, but the Seattle shadow puppet theater of Sgt. Rigsby's Silhouettes emphasizes its own disingenuousness. You go to this theater to see artifice, to see the wisdom of not taking anything--yourself, your culture's pieties, your ancestors--very seriously at all.

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