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 Stage 42 while the New Victory Theater undergoes renovations, 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.

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