Theater archives

Hanne Tierney’s String Theory


How was Wang-Fo saved?

Hanne Tierney pulled some strings.

Tierney performs the entirety of her object-theater piece How Wang-Fo Was Saved (Five Myles) using an elaborate system of 114 counterweighted strings. Her cords—which crisscross a performance space so wide you want to take a panoramic snapshot—reach their nimble end at a loom-like wall apparatus where Tierney manipulates them. Like a musician submerged in an instrument larger than herself, the artist plies the strings, animating objects located in every corner of the room. Her constructions—long, wrinkly coats, a wooden line that hinges into an M-shape—personify aspects of the story so convincingly you wonder if your own jacket is about to rise up and contribute a verse.

The text is adapted from Marguerite Yourcenar’s short-story retelling of an old Chinese legend. Tierney has added some quotes and dialogue of her own, but keeps the narration in Yourcenar’s colorful strokes of word. The two writers’ styles meet like sea and sky at the horizon, slight differences that are wholly complementary.

Captured as he walks with a disciple, the painter Wang-Fo is brought before the emperor—a character superbly played by three intricately shifting banners of red silk. The emperor demands that Wang-Fo (come to life as a color-shifting robe) be executed for his lies. The world, the emperor’s says, has been spoiled for him by Wang-Fo’s pictures: nothing in reality is as beautiful as the artist’s work had promised. The emperor demands that Wang-Fo complete one final canvas before his execution—but with this new work of art, Wang-Fo magically saves himself.

Tierney and her collaborators—especially wonder-making musician Jane Wang—might find themselves in a similar predicament in this emperor’s land. For they, too, have created a work of incandescent and unworldly beauty.