Dispatch: Puppet Theater Festival Opens With Moby Dick, Tells Comic and Dramatic Stories Through Puppetry
Chicago’s 5th annual International Puppet Theater Festival opened with a dramatic splash last week with a French-Norwegian production of Moby Dick at the beautifully refurbished Studebaker Theater. Productions are being staged in several venues this week and next, before ending on January 29 with Manual Cinema’s production of Frankenstein at the Studebaker.
Your Third Coast Review theater team includes a lot of puppetry fans and we’ve been able to see and review several productions. Here are our capsule reviews of four of them; look for our second dispatch next week.
Plexus Polaire: Moby Dick
It begins with a chorus of ghostly voices before Ishmael (Julian Spooner) steps out, dressed in jeans and woolen beanie, uttering one of the most famous lines in American literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Plexus Polaire’s haunting puppet adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was brought to vivid life at the Studebaker Theater last week as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. The production followed the familiar narrative with the familiar narrator, Ishmael, at the helm, along with a few members of the motley crew of the doomed Pequod: Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubb, Tashtego, Flask, Pip, and, of course, Captain Ahab himself A deep sense of melancholy dread hung heavily over the proceedings while director Yngvild Aspeli captured the visual equivalent of Melville’s magical prose. Moby Dick is performed by seven actors, 50 puppets, video projections on smoke, and a whale-sized whale.
Ishmael (the only character played by a live actor) is surrounded by the walking dead: ominous figures clothed completely in black with white skeletal faces. Puppets play all of the other roles. But these are no ordinary puppets. These puppets are invested with vibrant, complicated human life; especially noteworthy is a volcanic Ahab whose thunderous voice roared throughout the theater. Visually stunning, the joint Norwegian-French production depicted the paradoxical beauty and danger of the high seas along with the hubris and folly of human greed and ambition. Some of the more dazzling images included Pip, the cabin boy, swallowed up by the sea, his head thrusting out of a billowing curtain; Queequeg emerging from his coffin after being assumed dead; Ahab’s mesmerizing dance with death; and the powerful sight of a huge Moby Dick taking over the entire stage.
The music added tremendous pathos to Ahab’s sad tale of mad obsession gone awry. The sighting of the big whale with “Thar she blows,” for example, was accompanied by loud heavy metal-like music but then the score turned poignantly otherworldly with the vocals of Guro Skumsnes Moe that, to these ears, recalled the haunting, ethereal sounds of traditional Norwegian folk song.
A stunner. (June Sawyers)
The Gottabees: Squirrel Stole My Underpants
There’s nothing like spending part of a Saturday morning in a theater full of squealing, chattering kindergartners and their parents. The kids had plenty to squeal about as we watched a one-person mime and puppet show performed by Bonnie Duncan of the Boston troupe, The Gottabees, at the Chicago Children’s Theatre. (My youngest grandchildren live in North Carolina or I would surely have taken them to see the Gottabees.)
The title is the whole story but the way Duncan tells it is adorable. As Sylvie, her mop of curly red hair, expressive face, agile body and hand puppets are her storytelling tools; no words are needed (except for the occasional sign). The single piece of furniture is a clothesline stand and Duncan begins by hanging a huge tablecloth to create a curtain between her puppetry and her audience.
She then proceeds with the laundry. Two giant pairs of underpants, which Duncan indicates with facial expression are not her favorites. Bur finally, the bright pink underpants appear and they are the ones she loves—and also the ones the Squirrel prefers, as we soon learn. The Squirrel puppet attacks and the underpants battle begins.
Sylvie (and her puppet-size self) chases Squirrel to many places, as she pulls symbols of the world beyond from her laundry basket. Everything from a boat and the sea itself to sun, moon and clouds become part of the chase. She also brings out red yarn and knitting needles to create a squirrel costume (a hoodie with ears and tail) for herself so she can mislead the Squirrel thief.
Duncan is accompanied throughout the story by dramatic original music performed by Tony Leva and Brendan Burns on upright bass and guitar.
After the 40-minute play ended, Duncan returned as herself to tell us about the art of mime and show us how we could tell a story with our own puppet (our hand can form a puppet face).
A brava to Sandy Smith Gerding, the executive director of the Puppet Festival. She began the show by welcoming her audience and telling the now mandatory land acknowledgment story from a youngster’s point of view; she made it come alive for all of us. (Nancy S Bishop)
Les Anges au Plafond: R.A.G.E
R.A.G.E. is the outlandish story of a famous French man of letters, an aviator war hero and diplomat, who was one of the greatest literary conmen ever. The company Les Anges au Plafond from France tells the story as a brilliantly visualized play with dozens of lifesize puppets, a persistently percussive musical score, more than a little magic, and inventive screen projections. Sometimes the puppets are carried and manipulated by their puppeteers from behind and sometimes the puppets are “worn” by being attached to the front of the actor/puppeteer. The play is in French with projected English subtitles.
“We continue to guard the secret of his identity,” the company says in its playbill. But throughout the play, a set of projection screens, shadow puppetry and an invisible hand moving letters around on the screen reveal the names of the man himself: Romain Gary (his French name), Roman Kacew (his Lithuanian birth name) and Émile Ajar (a pseudonym and one of his pen names). (The play's title, R.A.G.E., is an anagram of those initials.)
Gary’s greatest prank was winning the Prix de Goncourt, France’s prestigious literary prize, twice, even though the rules specify an author can only win once. How did he do it? The second prize in 1975 was won by another noted author, Émile Ajar, who wasn’t revealed to be Gary until after Gary’s death in 1980.
R.A.G.E. was performed at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The running time was nearly two hours. The company, which says it “mixes everything up, actors and audience, set and stage,” performed all over the theater, in the aisles and behind the highest rows of seats. A group of audience members sat on the stage and occasionally the actors/puppets performed directly in front of them.
The company made an effort to make English translations visible to everyone; there were subtitle screens in several locations in the theater. Unfortunately, the only one that was visible to me was at centerstage and was usually obscured by the projection screens that were dropped down.
R.A.G.E. is a brilliantly designed production. But the Romain Gary story is complex; I would like some day to see this tantalizing tale done as a straight play with actors on a stage without the distraction of the puppets. (Nancy S Bishop)
Theoodora Skipitares: Grand Panorama
Frederick Douglass was one of the most photographed people of the 19th century. Daguerreotypes show Douglass the man and a prolific orator and writer. Douglass also struggled with his identity as a free man of color born of a nonconsensual union of his mother and his slave master. New York artist Theodora Skipitares, the creative mind behind Grand Panorama, has created a compelling and eye-opening story about the effects of enslavement on Black identity with Frederick Douglass as the central character. Grand Panorama is being performed at the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library. The final showing is at 6pm tonight, January 24.
When Louis Daguerre invented his photography process, there was an elitist outburst about the lower classes being memorialized. Only the wealthy could afford portraits and have their stories told through those paintings. The egalitarian nature of photography meant that a formerly enslaved man could leave a written and visual legacy that we see with Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and others.
Grand Panorama uses puppetry in many forms to take the audience through time and the lives of the formerly enslaved. Design and direction is by Skipitares with puppet direction by Jane Catherine Shaw. Musician Brittany Harris on cello starts the program while a performer clad in black with an oversize Douglass papier-mâché head sits alone in front of the curtain at an easel. The performer uses their hands to frame photos and silently communicate with the audience. It is a very good likeness of Douglass and a little unsettling like the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. That is part of the art of puppetry—taking an inanimate object and imbuing it with personality.
Grand Panorama has a vibrant energy and pacing with music by Mazz Swift and beautiful imagery. Skipitares uses marionettes, outsized heads, and a Rube-Goldberg array of pulleys and superimposition. A carnival of color, expressionism, and drawing with light gives Grand Panorama emotional heft and whimsy with an edge. Skipitares started her career with autobiographical works back in the ‘70s and then applied her craft to more diverse social and political themes. You can see more of her work on her website. (Kathy D. Hey)
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