Review: Puppetry and Movement in Above the Water Bring Strong Emotions to the Surface at the Den Theatre

Above the Water is a devised physical show (with puppets in it) about grief. At various points in my life, puppets had helped me get over several fears--including a childhood fear of math homework (thanks Sesame Street), so I wondered if seeing a show about grief, something I tend to shy away from, would be made more palatable with puppets.

As an adult, my discovery of contemporary puppet (thanks Chicago International Theater Puppet Festival!) was a revelation that matched my interest in other contemporary art forms and allowed me to rediscover this lifelong love of objects that we breathe life and meaning into.

In truth, Above the Water is more than a puppet show. It is a contemporary blend of physical theater and multidisciplinary puppetry. As Chih-Jou Cheng (project leader and performer in Above the Water) and her castmate Caitlyn McLeod (puppeteer, puppetmaker and performer) tell a story of heartbreaking loss, I can sense the grief just underneath the surface that will be disrupted if I open up my heart to their tale. Others in the room have already felt the bubbling as the plot unfolds. I hear sniffling. I see nodding and hand holding and one audience member behind me is taking deep, cleansing breaths several times per minute, creating a cloud of stranger heat above my head that makes me want to flee. What are we all grappling with here? Collective grief over COVID, the loss of loved ones, time, our own delusions? Or is it more personal for each of us, maybe possibly both?

Chih-Jou twists and bends her body on stage as if she is both the puppetmaster and the puppet. Carried along through her own grief process after the death of a loved one her body seems to be tossed around by cruel winds. She clings to stretchy strings, a sad marionette, sometimes tangled on them, sometimes using them for support as the tale of the early loss of the character’s mother unfolds. Exploring a full range of movement (Laban method style), the artist embodies grief itself as around shadow puppetry and three-dimensional puppets enact the story of her loss. This combination of symbolic movement (with stories evolving and revolving around it) is very effective. Watching the dancer/mover, how can we not imagine ourselves through her? Seeing her story and the pain it causes, how can we avoid making some connections about the pain we too have felt?

Chih-Jou’s motions are sometimes hopeful but her suffering is palpable, and I work to keep it removed from my consciousness, but the thin wall of ice I have built around my heart melts as a puppet story emerges about an eagle and a star, paralleling the mother-daughter story, and voiceovers of people sharing their stories of loss are interspersed with the plaintive music by composer Macy Camille. The clever lighting design by Daphne Agosin does a lot to set the tone as well. I long for a quick break, a moment of humor to distract or shock me back into my own story and body, but I am immersed now, swimming in the same soup as the others. It’s poetic, haunting, beautiful and difficult.

This show reminds us that we will all suffer loss at some point. Most of us have many times already, and yet why does this emotion called grief challenge us more than most? Are we afraid we will lose control of our bodies and minds while experiencing grief? Are we afraid we will never feel happy again? To what lengths would we go to avoid one painful memory?

The fable of the eagle and the star, the daughter who lost her mother far too soon, and the sharing of that internal turmoil serves a large purpose for the viewers—it makes grief accessible, a conversation that can be approached rather than feared and avoided. Hearing the sniffles around me was as hard as the surfacing of my own grief, a heaviness that bubbled up at last. But the communal experience of mourning what was together felt unique (interactive and participatory), eye-opening (we’re not alone), and cathartic (you can survive these strong emotions and other emotions will sometimes arrive). Fortunately, Susan Imus (licensed clinical counselor, professor) was present after the show to offer a workshop that allowed the artists and the audience to process our ideas and emotions in an exchange that was as embodied as it was verbal. How brilliant!

“Any sensations, images, feelings or thoughts? We call it sifting your experience,” Susan offered, before leading us all in a few movement exercises. “Can I ask, do you have a wish about a loved one who may have passed?” she soon asked. I thought of each lost person and opportunity; to repair the broken bits. To have another day together. To take them somewhere I loved. The voiceover artists shared their own thoughts in the show; to make a meal together, to have a normal day.

And you know what? The young adults present dove right in, sharing their observations, as easily as their experiences, seemingly as eager to process their grief as I had originally been to avoid it. Seeing this audience open up renewed my faith in humankind for one more day, and for that I am grateful. If they can face hard things and share how they grew, so can I. We can help each other. That is what Above the Water aims to do as part of Dawn Theatre Project, whose mission as a devised physical theater community is “to create artworks inspired by true stories that illuminate the challenges and joys of the human experience.” 

Above the Water’s world premiere is at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through Sunday, November 6. Suggested ticket price $30 or pay-what-you-can. To learn more about them, visit their socials, on Instagram @DawnTheatre, on Facebook @dawntheatreproject.

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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.