Preview: Papa's Time Machine

Maleonn Ma's time-travelling extravaganza is a visual delight

As adults, most of us seek ways to show our parents gratitude, but few efforts are as creative, heartfelt, or labour intensive as Papa’s Time Machine. Internationally celebrated visual artist Maleonn Ma has a vibrant career, but had always wanted to collaborate with his theatremaker father. For his part, his father had always wanted his son to work on the stage, not in the studio. Sadly, Ma senior was stricken with Alzheimer’s and struggled to remember even personal details, let alone theatrical techniques. But one day, the father kept asking his son if he could swim (and forgetting he had asked), and it was during Ma’s repeated trips into the pool that he conceived of this award-winning puppet show, with eternal themes and complex visuals that include four life-sized puppets, each thousands of pieces strong.

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In some ways, Machine represents Chinese theatre at its strongest and weakest, where visuals nearly swallow the story whole – although these visuals are nothing less than staggering. The plot is simple: Makugee, a brilliant scientist, builds a time machine to transport his ailing father back into happier memories. The 'cast' is four puppets and their human puppeteers: the aged father, the adult son, the more youthful father and the child. The story has father and son in vignettes about fishing, camping, learning to ride a bicycle, telling bedtime stories, and even a disturbing spanking scene. The puppets took over two years to build and it shows; the adult son stands 160cm high and is made up of 1,252 parts, while the child measures 112cm high and weighs in at 1,028 parts – both are so dextrous they can even point.

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Besides sifting through, assembling, and oiling thousands of components, the team kept modifying designs, especially when the onstage puppeteers got involved. Even the supporting players (giant fish, birdmen) had to meet Ma’s high standards.

But it was also the nature of the medium Ma found challenging. 'The hardest thing was to get my confidence,' he says. 'Theatre was a new world for me – I started from zero. I was trying to be a director, and I think I overdid it.' Ma spent years researching movies, literature, and other theatre. 'It’s hard to define where the inspiration came from, for creation itself is to make a painstaking investigation,' he says. 'It takes patience, caution, and a lot of thinking.' And while Ma insists that all art shares the same core spirit that overrides the importance of any specific medium, theatre and visual arts are different beasts. 'With a photoshoot or a painting, once it’s done, it’s done, but theatre is a different concept,' he says. 'There is never a final version'.

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Papa’s Time Machine has moments of real pathos and tenderness, and the love between father and son is immediately evident; furthermore, the stage design and puppetry are stunning. However, the episodic storytelling wears thin and gets a bit frustrating. The performers also deliberately use gibberish language; organisers announce before the show that the puppets speak in their own dialect, so we shouldn't try to understand it, because the show was designed for an international tour. But while a stronger narrative arc would make a good show even better, Papa’s Time Machine has a lot to offer audiences and theatremakers alike. Ma’s father would be proud.