À Ố does elicit the Oohs and Aahs

(No.5, Vol.3, June 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photos: Le Minh

Theatrical shows that depict scenes from Vietnamese life and culture have, in recent years, become almost as common as TV soaps. The latest to hit the boards at the Saigon Opera House goes by the odd title of ‘A O.’ My editor explained that this has a double meaning. Firstly, as in many a language, it means Ah! Oh! - the gasps you make when you see or hear something truly amazing. Many such interjections came from the audience around me when I saw a performance of said show. Secondly, the a and o are the vowel sounds in the Vietnamese words for village and town, indicating you will see not only quaint and beautiful scenes from the Vietnamese countryside, but also the un-romanticised reality of modern urban living.
This show is remarkable in its highly creative and original use of the circus skills of acrobatics, contortionism-and at one point-magic, with superb traditional musical accompaniment. Furthermore, you will be thrilled by the ingenious use of only two types of prop; namely woven baskets of various sizes and bamboo poles twice the height of the average man.
The opening scene is of the scurrying of marine animals on a beach, organised into a brilliantly choreographed dance. You guessed it - those baskets serve as the crustaceans. Several acrobats are under basket boats to form crabs and a single one is under each of smaller baskets, doing back stands to form ‘legs’ in order to act out clams. This is followed by a lively coracle dance with raucous banging of drums and sticks.
The next scene reveals some ingenious scenery which remains in use until the end; a huge compartmentalised cupboard of bamboo as high as the stage will allow. In each section are musicians in traditional raiment. It is a simple but effective way to literally showcase the accompanying orchestra of drum, zither and stringed instrument players. If you have been to the Mekong Delta, you will have surely seen a monkey bridge (cau khi). This is a single bamboo pole with a couple of others attached as railings to cross small stretches of water. Although I know bamboo is very strong material, I with my heavy European frame, have never had the courage to try one of these. Here, dressed as villagers complete with conical hats, the acrobats walk up and down the poles poised at steep angles and then along transversals connected at their summits; a tightrope act using bamboo poles to affect the daily life of a riverside village.
Then there is a dance scene with the spirited rolling of smaller baskets, followed by another involving the twisting and twirling of the long bamboo poles.
Scenes of everyday life ensue. There is a watery scene with someone paddling his coracle and a floating market. The larger baskets are then turned into an island, with the smaller ones used as a circle of stepping stones around it. The versatility is amazing; there is another scene depicting the frenetic activity of a construction site. You may have seen, in real life, builders speedily tossing piles of bricks to others on a higher level, with the man at the top never failing to catch them. This is re-enacted using the baskets.

The quick pace of this show is constant. A fiery performance of rolling wheels is lit by flashing red lighting and stage lightning, affecting a sudden tropical storm. Round frames of the coracles are stacked on top of each other and a contortionist balances herself on top to give a display of her twisted art-amazing! Hot on her heels comes another shellfish dance with a twist of its own at the end, as the acrobats uncannily use their baskets to transform themselves into iconic water ducks with a chorus of quacking. This scene prompted spontaneous applause from the audience. And then, yet another transformation occurred as the baskets were rearranged to make a huge caterpillar.
The magic scene is quite amazing. Basket boats are wheeled quickly across the stage floor. From behind them, the same person seems to appear at different places almost at the same time. If you can figure out how this illusion is achieved, you are a better man than I.
From these idyllic rural scenes, you are suddenly thrown into twenty-first century city life. No more traditional garb, as the troupe now is wearing everyday clothes, and whilst the traditional musicians are still playing, a strident electric guitar is dominant. The cacophony of a street with the shrieking of children is evoked. There are no motorbikes, but tricks on a bicycle serve as a substitute. The dancing now is high-energy hip hop. There are people on a jolting city bus trying to keep their equilibrium. Altogether, it is a sharp reawakening to the stark reality outside the opera house.
The next part is somewhat voyeuristic, as each section of background scenery becomes a block of flats and we can peer into the goings-on of its occupants at evening time. Different scenes happening simultaneously give a comic book effect. Among them, there is a person rhythmically taking a shower. Another is being given a rather painful massage. A man and a woman perform a tortuous dance, of which you may make as you will. One scene that really struck home for me (pardon the pun) was of a neighbour responding in kind to the hammering and banging next door. One detail; the moon high above is, of course, a basket with yellow lighting behind it.
Neither modern nor traditional, the next scene is of cooking in a kitchen with basket boats and bamboo poles cleverly turned into a cauldron. Now, towards the end, as if to atone for the sin of bringing you back to the harsh reality of Saigon life, the tone becomes gentle again. A woman appears from a balcony, Juliet style, and sings a beautiful traditional song. There is a dance scene of a young girl swirling around as a torrent of red flowers rains into a basket boat. Finally, the cast assembles for shouts and not ‘hats off ‘, but the signature baskets being tossed and juggled in the air.
Hopefully, my writing will have got you gasping ‘A O!’ If not, you will just have the see the show for yourself. See it anyway, as this is one hour of full-value entertainment. Everything is first class; music, lighting, dance, illusion, acrobatics and the evocation of both city and village life. I raise my basket in salute to the creators of this thoughtful show and hereby express my deep admiration of the many talents of the performers, whose many hours of practice have resulted in perfection. In sum, a jolly good show indeed!
A O show is performed at the Opera House, 7 Cong Truong Lam Son, D.1, HCMC, at 6 p.m. on 14, 17, 20 and 21 June; and at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on 16, 22 and 30 June. Tickets: VND1,250,000, VND890,000 and VND530,000.
Tickets are selling at the ticket box, Saigon Tourist Information Centre, 45 Le Thanh Ton St, D.1 and 102 Nguyen Hue Blvd., D.1. Email:
reservation@aoshowsaigon.com or Tel: (08) 6281-6893.

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