Puppet Fest P.S: Mariano Pensotti @ MCA

3.5 stars out of 4

Argentine director Mariano Pensotti gave us his latest head-scratching, genre-defying, exquisitely funny work at the MCA this weekend, Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche (Burning bright in the forest of the night). It is densely layered and smartly acted, and may cause you to unpack it late into the night with a bottle of wine with whoever you came with.

Two things stand out in discussing Arde brillante: its unique three-part structure and its urgent political themes. Described by Pensotti as a “Russian nesting doll of a play”, we see a film within a play within a puppet show. Though the play-within-a play structure is centuries old, this three-fold unraveling is fresh and surprising, with transitions smooth as butter. Pensotti started his career as a precocious film director before turning to the stage, and he is demonstrably comfortable in each medium. The cast begin as actor-puppeteers (breaking with the convention of an all-black uniform that tries to make the human disappear, they wear outfits that match their puppets’), acting just enough that our eye isn’t quite sure which to look at. The set (nimbly designed by Mariana Tirantte) quickly transforms into a theater stage, and later a screen drops and we recognize our protagonists onscreen, even as their live bodies watch the action with us. The compelling Ines Efron, Laura Lopez, and Susana Pampin lead the cast, and in each formal iteration we reconsider them anew. 

Thematically, Arde Brillante’s jumping off point is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The disastrous consequences of both communism and capitalism, the problems of gender and class oppression, and the messiness of love and family dynamics are all covered via multiple characters, situations, and styles. The idea of art as a tool for social justice is even mocked, assuring us the production is more interested in raising messy questions about art, agency, and history than it is in providing preachy answers. 

The Chicago International Puppet Fest ran through January 27, 2019, and will return in the winter of 2021. See www.chicagopuppetfest.org for more information.

The MCA Stage has three more shows in its season; see www.mcachicago.org/stage

Susanna is a Teaching Artist with Chicago's finest dance education companies, exposing hundreds of students to the art of dance each year. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Dance from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where she was awarded the David Wick Prize for Choreography. Susanna enjoys performing, keeping up with the city's performance scenes, and traveling.