Khmer Theater Fest Offers Panoply of Style and Lore

New works staged in old forms, venues big and small, and every show a premiere–this is what the French cultural center has in store this year for its fourth annual Lakhaon Theater Festival.

Starting Friday, shows will be presented over eight consecutive nights at seven different locations. Increasing the number of locations will allow a larger number of spectators to see the performances and, hopefully, avoid a repeat of last year, when hundreds of people had to be turned away for lack of space at the theater, said Kor Borin, who heads the center’s cultural activity and communications department.

Venues will include the Chenla Theater and six smaller locations with stage areas: Meta House, Happy Garden restaurant, the French cultural center’s cafe du Centre, Reatrey restaurant, Chinese House and the restaurant Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic.

One of Cambodia’s oldest theater forms features prominently on this year’s program, but the three companies performing lakhaon sbek touch, or small shadow-puppet theater, will stage brand new plays in this form: adaptations of fables written by 17th century poet Jean de la Fontaine.

Producing shadow puppet versions of these French tales has meant creating Khmer texts, songs and music for traditional instruments, and new leather puppets to illustrate the tales’ characters, said Mann Kosal of Sovanna Phum, an artist association that has been producing shadow puppet shows since 1994.

Texts and songs, however, were not that difficult to write. “The lives of all people around the world are more or less the same, and they have similar feelings,” Mr Kosal said Friday.

This form of theater may be more than a millennium old, said Pok Sarann, deputy director for the Ministry of Culture’s department of performing arts, which is presenting a shadow puppet show during the festival.

Small puppets were usually used to tell folktales and other popular stories, while the lakhaon sbek thom, or large puppet theater, was reserved for episodes from the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of the epic tale Ramayana, he said Friday.

The third company performing with small shadow puppets at the festival will be the Banteay Srei company of Sinn Samy, an artist with the ministry’s performing arts department.

The festival will also feature the well-known Cambodian story “Mea Yoeung,” or our uncle, performed in lakhaon yike, a form of musical theater that combines dance and singing, said Pann Sereivuth, director of the Takeo province yike company at the provincial department of culture and fine arts. This form of theater, which originated in Takeo province, may be more than 1,200 year old, he said.

The story is about a fisherman with an unpleasant wife and a rich man married to a nice woman who decide to exchange wives, which greatly changes their lives, he said on Friday.

“This old folktale carries an educational message regarding the role and importance of women in family and society, which is why I chose this story,” he said.

“This performance is a mixture of comedy and drama,” Mr Sereivuth said. “A good show is like cooking: One needs meat and vegetables and seasonings in order to create a tasty dish.” The cast will include 32 actors, dancers, and musicians, he added.

Also on the festival program will be a rare performance of lakhaon boeuk bot, a type of theater that was once reserved for the court and noble families. It will be performed by artists from the NGO Cambodian Living Arts under the direction of Uy Ladavann of the ministry’s performing arts department.

“It’s a form that borrows 30 percent of its technique and style from classical dance,” she said on Friday. “The performers first speak, then sing without music. And then, music and singing come together with dancing.”

Performers must use facial expressions to show emotions when they speak or sing in a way that is quite different from classical dance and is difficult for them to learn, she said.

The cast of 24 young men and women will stage “Preah Chan Korob,” a story of love at first sight.

The festival will open at Chenla Theater on Friday with a production by the renowned French theater company Parnas, which will present a Cambodian adaptation of the 19th-century French comedy “L’affaire de la rue de Lourcine,” or “The Lourcine Street Case,” by Eugene Labiche.

This will be the third year in a row that the company has created a show with Cambodian artists to launch the festival.

All performances are free, even those held at restaurants, as agreements were made with owners and managers that people would be able to attend without having to purchase food or drinks, Mr Borin said.

Free tickets are available at the French cultural center and at the door of all events.


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