Delight, Astonishment and Pithy Politics @Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

4 Stars out of 4

Every other year, across the city, our own visionary Gepetto: Blair Thomas, along with his team, assembles an array of venues, ranging from the lush jewel box of the Studebaker in the Fine Arts Building to the edgy sit on the floor Studio 2 at Links Hall to a curtained black box at Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard, and places in those spaces the most fascinating array of object theatre one can see in one town in 10 days.  The tradition of animating objects into characters that tell a story, known as puppetry, is long and varied.  You have the shadow puppets of Indonesia (referenced by Rough House’s compassionate The Stranger and the Shadow, by Jeghetto’s wrenching Just Another Lynching) : You have the articulated lovelies of Japanese Bunraku, (quite popular and well utilized in many of the offerings on view this year: most exquisitely rendered by a Spanish Dancer puppet at Nasty, Brutish and Short last Friday night).  You have spectacle puppets, most beautifully realized  in the groundbreaking Ajijaak on Turtle Island, an epic work of startling gorgeousness created by Ibex Puppetry (Jim Henson’s daughter produced them) in partnership with the American Indian Center.  There are marionettes: in this festival strikingly represented by Sam Lewis’s Jus Hambone, an historic vintage puppet representing an uncomfortable stereotype. And there are stick puppets: Pedro Reyes/The Tank’s Manufacturing Mischief brings to us meticulously made tiny Trump, rapping Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, Steve Jobs , Elon Musk and Ayn Rand at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on U of Chicago’s campus, and finally you have found objects that come to life as in the humble and startlingly beautiful dancing plastic bags in L’Apres-Midi D’un Foehn Version 1 by Compagnie Non Nova.

LAPRES. Photo by: Jean-Luc Beaujault 

LAPRES. Photo by: Jean-Luc Beaujault 

Individually each show is a thought provoking engagement in intimate storytelling, often in a space you haven’t been to before, like the Instituto Cervantes Theatre which found itself hosting Robin Frohardt’s The Pigeoning when the originally scheduled artist ran into the US’s famed visa issues (which continue to damper producing international artists).  The festival as an overall theatre crawl is a worthy reason to dig out of the darkness and bitter cold, throw dibs on your parking space and get thee into a theatre in these the deep days of winter . Much of the story is visual, as in the wordless dancelike L’Apres Midi D’Un Foehn Version 1 where the consumately articulate movement artist Jean-Louis Ouvrard serves as magical wizard animating a chorus of mundane packaging.

As a totality, the festival is a work of marvelous artistic direction and a motivation to actually fly/drive/train to this city for something unique in the nation.  Generally speaking, puppet artists are raw, handcrafty workshoppers, DIY’ers that travel without entourage.  You can’t really be a diva as a puppeteer, and you certainly don’t take up the craft for the money. So seeing them is usually a scattered across the calendar basement or storefront theatre affair.  If you are lucky enough to base yourself in Chicago, with resident companies like Rough House, Manual Cinema and Cabinet of Curiosities and the late great and sorely missed Redmoon,  as well as puppet visionaries like Michael Montenegro, puppets end up in your regular theatre mix so the festival may not, at first glance, seem as remarkable as it is: the fest manages to bring together some of the greatest global artisans of the form where they can cross pollinate and innovate and the entire field expands as a result of the gathering. This puppet festival is a rare exquisite item.

And these are not your childhood puppets: while Ajijaak on Turtle Island is a Lush retelling of an indigenous myth, made contemporary and political by its environmental stewardship message, works like Just Another Lynching are as dark and difficult as a documentary.  Even The Stranger and The Shadow, another family friendly labeled show, presents a disturbing dystopia.  The Pigeoning is a funny twisted dive into mental illness.

Manufacturing Mischief. Photo by: Sham Sthankiya

The offerings this year thread the idea of political and social commentary through all of the works I was able to witness on a binge watch the first weekend.   Things are not going well for humanity: we need a lot of rescuing.  We need our better natures to step up and take on the challenges presented by these bits of wood, paper mache and paint and string.

There is a poignancy that a storyteller can achieve with a puppet that is difficult to attain with a human actor.  There is also a release from the bounds of reality when a person can fly with the birds as in The Pigeoning or be materialized out of a copy machine as in Manufacturing Mischief so that the stories can reach deep into our collective angst and we respond in ways we might not if this was live storefront theatre with strictly human protagonists.  These stories have great power, gorgeous craft, beautiful,memorable imagery.  You shall see things that provoke, compel and mystify. A shout out to all the sound designers in this years round up: from the Native American drumming In Ajijaak to the madhouse overshadowing score of the Stranger and The Shadow to Ivan Roussel’s variations on Debussy’s in L'Apres Midi, these productions tell auditory as well as visual tales. 

The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival 2019 closes on Sunday January 27, 2019 and you will have to wait to 2021 for it to appear in the dark of Chicago winter again.  For more information and a complete rundown on who what when where: go to www.chicagopuppetfest.org.