Theater Review: In ‘White Gold,’ Rice Is a Sacred Starch

Theater Review: In ‘White Gold,’ Rice Is a Sacred Starch

In Cambodia, nothing is harvested more often or eaten more frequently than rice. It’s a wonder then that such familiarity does not breed contempt — quite the opposite. For Cambodian people, the grain is worth its weight in gold.

The family-friendly circus act “White Gold,” presented by the Cambodian Circus ensemble Phare and playing now at New Victory Theater, details the nation’s inextricable link to the sanctified crop. Throughout the show, we watch a young man contend with rice as if it really is a rare metal, one that first brings great prosperity but soon incites competition and greed.

“White Gold” evokes traditional Cambodian art and ancient religion from its opening act. A man draws an eight-point mandala — an intricate, geometric design used in spiritual practice — to the vibrating hum of a Khmer chant. The acts that follow continue to highlight the richness of Cambodian culture with acrobatics, Indigenous music (played by three onstage musicians) and rousing choreography (by Julien Clement), all without spoken dialogue.

The story, conveyed entirely through movement and live painting, is based loosely on “Siddhartha,” the 1922 novel by Herman Hesse about a young man who renounces material possessions and embarks on a humble journey of self-discovery. In “White Gold,” our traveler abandons the bounty of his family home and winds up in a community plagued by avarice.

There, he learns that traditional Buddhist values like kindness and patience clash with consumerism and the hunger to hoard more rice. As the stakes for the young man intensify, so do the ensemble’s stunts. The masterly Phare troupes acrobatic feats (tumbling, juggling, launching one another off a teeterboard) defy what most of us expect of gravity. Despite the story’s weighty roots, Bonthoeijn Houn, the artistic coach, embeds each act with moments of lighthearted theatricality; actors bulge their eyes and wag their butts, eliciting endless giggles from the audience of children and adults, both equally entertained.

Even more exciting is witnessing the care that Phare members take in assuring one another’s safety, as the acrobats spot fellow performers like cheerleaders and clap to signify they’re ready to soar. Theater often prides itself on keeping labor unseen; this circus doesn’t mind showing it.

During a Rola Bola act, Tida Kong stacks four cylinders in a perpendicular pattern and then hops on top. Later, during a hand balancing act, he tilts his body to alarming angles while several feet in the air.

All of this happens while rice engulfs every inch of the New Victory stage, sometimes flowing like a waterfall from an overhanging tarp, other times splashing like ocean waves when characters throw it in the air. How any of Phare’s players withstand the gritty feel of it on bare or thinly covered feet remains a mystery. But if they’re in any pain, it’s not visible — only the mesmerizing beauty is. And unlike at the Big Top, an orchestra ticket seats you mere feet away.

White Gold
Through Dec. 30 at the New Victory Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour.

This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

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