A lonely princess, a forlorn fisherman, a touch of magic and a moral at the end--that's what "The Story of Truong Chi" is made of.
The Vietnamese folk tale will be brought to life in Fullerton today by Seattle Mime Theatre, a 17-year-old touring trio that uses a contemporary blend of traditional mime, dance, improvisation, music and the spoken word performed with colorful costumes and props.
"We first devised the work for our children's programming," said Bruce L. Wylie, the troupe's co-artistic director and founding member. "But we found that adults like the story at least as much, so for several years we've included it in our general shows. It's a universal story with archetypal characters which might be parallel to 'Beauty and the Beast.' "
The eight-minute piece will be part of a mixed bill presented at Plummer Auditorium by Cal State Fullerton's Professional Artists in Residence Celebrity Series.
It's "an adaptation, an interpretation of the Vietnamese story as we read it in English," Wylie said by phone recently from Seattle. "We had done Native American stories and several European fairy tales" before creating the work "but had not anything from that part of the world."
The allegory begins as a princess, who lives a solitary life with her father, the king, hears beautiful singing emanating from a river below the palace, said Wylie, recounting the tale in rich detail, as if telling it to a child at bedtime.
"One day, the princess falls ill, and nothing seems to bring her back to health," he said. Nothing, that is, until she hears the singing again, which magically revives her. Realizing the song comes from a fisherman at the river below, the king summons him.
"The fisherman comes to the palace, and the daughter sees that his face is grotesquely disfigured, and she sends him away," Wylie said. "But in the same moment that she is so repulsed, he falls in love with her. So he goes back to his boat, but nothing can console him, and the depth of his sadness causes him to die."
Years later, the fisherman's family attempts to move his body to a family cemetery, Wylie continued, but in place of his coffin, they find a luminous crystal pendant, which they decide to mount on the prow of his boat.
"Then, as these folk-tale coincidences happen, the king sees the crystal and takes it to the palace, where one of his artisans transforms it into a goblet. Next, amazingly, while filling it with tea one day, he looks inside and sees the fisherman's image.
"He brings the princess to see this, and she too sees the image, and it so moves her that she realizes that she made a mistake by dismissing the fisherman. She is moved to tears, one tear falls and strikes the goblet, and it disappears into the air, liberating the fisherman's spirit."
There's no coming back for the fisherman, however. The moral of the story, Wylie said, has to do with "the tragedy of beauty that is unappreciated in its time."
If all that seems like more than a mouthful, especially for a mime troupe, spoken narration helps convey the story, as does the trio's vivid physical portrayal, said Wylie.
"We create still pictures with our bodies, yet each picture slowly dissolves into the next," he said. "We might do a palace scene, then we'll all rotate, changing positions, and all of a sudden the audience will see an image of a boat. It's like fog, gathering into an image, then regathering into another image."
Other works to be presented during the troupe's third Orange County appearance are an improvisational number spurred by audience suggestions and a rambunctious farce titled "20th Century Vector Movement."
The trio also does a 22-minute version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in which it creates a dozen different characters and recites the entire text of the popular James Thurber short story.
In a day when many theatrical presentations involve more technical pyrotechnics than ever, there's still a demand for the more subtle art of mime, said Wylie, who spends up to four months a year on the road, in the United States and abroad.
"On the national level, there are quite a few vital companies out there," he said, "and wherever we go, we're creating more audiences and interest in the kind of mime we do. We find that when we do residencies at universities where we teach master classes, students continue to be incredibly interested."
* Seattle Mime Theatre performs today at 8 p.m. at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. $10 and $12. Presented by Cal State Fullerton's PAIR series. (714) 773-3371.