Shadow Figures At Flushing Town Hall

Flushing Town Hall Shadow Puppets

A snapshot of the Pauline Benton and the Red Gate shadow puppet display at Flushing Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Anat Gerstein Inc.

By James Farrell
Flushing Town Hall is exhibiting a shadow puppet collection that displays the work of legendary puppeteer Pauline Benton in honor of the Lunar New Year.

The exhibit, “Pauline Benton and the Red Gate,” will feature antique shadow figures, a portable shadow stage and works that Benton either collected or commissioned from trips to China throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Benton’s touring shadow stage will also be a part of the exhibit, which will also include archived materials from the Red Gate, Benton’s former theater company. These include photos, programs, posters, playscripts and films.

“This exhibition features a sampling from one of the largest private collections of Chinese shadow figures in the United States, and represents a significant historical and ethnographic treasure trove,” said Stephen Kaplin, one of the exhibit’s curators. “Most of the figures in the collection present a unique snapshot of the life and popular culture of early 20th century urban China. Much of the world depicted by these shadows was either destroyed in the fires of World War II or during the massive upheavals of the Communist Revolution.”

Benton’s Red Gate Players are often credited with introducing North America to traditional shadow puppet theater—an ancient form of entertainment based in Asian history and tradition. The professional company was active from the 1930s through the 1960s.

The exhibition will be curated by Kaplin’s Chinese Theatre Works—a collaboration between the Chinese Theatre Workshop and Gold Mountain Institute, which received many of Benton’s shadow puppets, staging equipment and archives  in 1996, more than 20 years after her death in 1975.

By that time, the materials had been compromised by tung oil, which normally works to preserve the materials but in this case created a syrupy substance that made them stick together. The exhibit is the product of the Gold Mountain Institute’s long gestating restoration.

“Pauline Benton’s company pioneered the presentation of cross-cultural puppetry forms,” Kaplin said. “This exhibit will feature fascinating material from the Benton archives that places her work into the historical context of American puppetry. While it is commonplace today to see puppets from any corner of the globe, back in the early ‘30s, Benton’s figures must have been a revelation to her audiences, and they still are.”

The exhibition opened on Feb. 4, and will run through Feb. 26. The gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. on weekends. There is a $5 suggested donation.

Additionally, Flushing Town Hall will be holding the second of two complementary events in conjunction with the exhibit on Feb. 17. The Lunar New Year Shadow Puppet Slam will be hosted by Kaplin and Kuang-Yu Fong, and feature an evening of short works, including traditional and cutting edge shadow theater, animation, video and film. The event will be held at 7 p.m. and is open to adult audiences only. Tickets are $13 for non-members and $10 for members, and can be purchased at www.flushingtownhall.org.

Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, jfarrell@queenstribune.com or @farrellj329.

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