Dispatch: Puppet Fest Wraps Up With Shows Garish, Gorgeous and Grand Guignol

Chicago’s 5th annual International Puppet Theater Festival wrapped up this weekend after presenting more than 100 puppet productions and events around the city. The final production was an inventive staging of Frankenstein by our celebrated Manual Cinema troupe at the Studebaker Theater. 

Chicago Puppet Fest fans revel in these productions because of the breadth of their storytelling and creative production values; these are not children’s puppet shows or adorable Kukla, Fran and Ollie productions. Most of the productions—with the exception of those at the Chicago Children’s Theatre—are very much for adults and often portray garish and outrageous themes such as literary fraud, sexuality and cannibalism, even while displaying the magic of puppetry stylings and original music.

Puppet Fest leaders estimate that 14,000 national and international guests travel to Chicago in the heart of winter to enjoy the festival, the nation’s most substantial puppet fest—“an oasis of fascination and artistry representing a breadth of style, quality of work and artistic achievement” from nine other countries and several US cities. 

Your Third Coast Review puppetry team saw a number of festival productions (but never enough). Here are our capsule reviews for three of them. Sadly, the Puppet Fest is over but we look forward to the 6th festival in 2024.

Cast of Hamlet.  Photo by Alan Eason.

Janni Younge: Hamlet         

The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival presented Hamlet, produced and directed by Janni Younge from South Africa. Younge is the creator of the puppets and directs this show. This is a fine rendering of Shakespeare’s work and delves deeply into what that era may have looked like. The life-sized puppets are choregraphed and operated by alternating actors to give a haunted and dark edge to a tale of greed, power, and all that it may have wrought in Elsinore, Denmark.

Younge’s puppets are clad in flowing and tattered linen or muslin fabric and operated by multiple actors or puppeteers. The battle between the conscious thoughts and haunting memories lurking in the subconscious is central to Hamlet. Did he really see his father’s ghost or has he been driven mad with grief? This show uses a very sparsely dressed stage to evoke a dark and foggy castle. The muslin fabric sheds as the puppets move about the stage giving a more eerie edge to the steady fog machine. 

The cast of actors are outstanding, exchanging dialogue and projecting the tension and angst of a Shakespearean tragedy, which is known to sometimes go Grand Guignol at the end. The bodies begin to pile up and when the characters die, it is spine tingling to see an inanimate object portraying an inanimate human. The death of Ophelia is poignant and the staging for her drowning is done very well with minimalist props and sweeping moves by the cast. 

Younge’s Hamlet has all of the weight of a live cast or any of the film versions without the attachment to a particular “celebrity” playing the lead role. The use of puppetry reveals more nuances of the plot and spotlights all of the characters and how they are woven together into the centuries-old story. The words and phrasing are like a high bas relief to the characters and it creates a fluid and beautifully paced production. The play is the thing. 

Hamlet was staged at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. (Kathy D. Hey)

Macunaíma Gourmet. Photo by Hugo Honorato.

Pigmalião Escultura que Mexe: Macunaíma Gourmet

This Brazilian company stages a raucous, outrageous political and economic story centered on food. The food happens to be the indigenous people that the Brazilian elite prey upon. The story is adapted from the popular Brazilian novel, Macunaíma, by Mario de Andrade. Andrade’s 1928 work creates the shapeshifting character Macunaíma (“a hero without a character”) and his journey (including many lascivious interludes) but does not address the horrifying political and economic state of contemporary Brazil portrayed in this production. 

As the play begins, Macunaíma is born in a jungle. When he’s still a child, he’s kidnapped by the forces of FFC (a giant consumer corporation) and raised like an animal until he’s ready for consumption. Yes, one of the features of Macunaíma Gourmet is cannibalism. At various stages, corporate marketing representatives (costumed and sometimes masked) describe the 12 steps in the production and distribution of food—birth, maturation, fattening, reproduction, packaging, marketing, the sale, etc. 

The puppets take several forms. Macunaíma himself is a lifesize puppet, manipulated by several puppeteers in the bunraku puppetry tradition. Other characters are human performers wearing outsize animal heads. Near the end of the 80-minute production, a giant male puppet wearing a black suit and tie appears and settles down for his dinner. While he’s devouring our “hero without a character,” we hear the chilling voice of our own former president extolling his friend Jair Bolsonaro* for his achievements in improving the Brazilian economy. 

A percussive soundtrack and a series of illustrative and graphic projections enhance the sometimes grisly, but always intriguing, production. 

(*Bolsonaro was defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2022, but like his supporter, our former president, Bolsonaro charged electoral fraud (the charge was rejected by a court decision). His supporters are still protesting the election results.)

Macunaíma Gourmet was performed at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art. 
(Nancy S Bishop)

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Manual Cinema: Frankenstein

The story of Dr. Frankenstein, delivered with old timey silent flick styling (salted with poignancy and peppered with humor) was the final feast of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, and the surprise ingredient was the local company itself—Chicago’s Manual Cinema—making their international sway all the sweeter for us. This Emmy-award-winning performance collective, design studio and film/video production company defies description, as they mingle cinematic techniques, projection, puppetry, live theater (with actors) and live music (with contemporary and classical themes) to produce a riveting mix of audio-visual storytelling. 

The production is an homage to the classic novel and the enormous influence of Frankenstein on the world of literature and film, and an acknowledgement of its underrated author. The story takes a fresh perspective, creating a more nuanced tale. The good doctor’s monster becomes quite human and relatable as seen through the eyes of their true creator, Mary Shelley (played by co-artistic creator Sarah Fornace, also playing Victor Frankenstein). With deceptively simple movement in shadow puppetry and projection techniques, combined with astonishing sound and stage design, Mary’s story of loss and struggle unfolds.

Motherhood and creativity vie for her time, while privileged poet Percy Shelley (her husband), simply takes whatever time he needs. Lord Byron and Percy jest and jibe, challenging each other to create the best ghost story, not even thinking to invite her, a fellow writer (historical accounts vary on this). It was after all 1818 and Mary was compelled to write the text as Anonymous rather than divulge her gender. But she takes up the challenge from a strong impulse to process the fathomless sorrow she has experienced at the loss of her first child (Clara). She digs deep to create this monster, a creature that torments and intrigues her, half doll (her lost, innocent baby) and half demon (the torment of a relationship that would never grow and would forever haunt her). 

Her ghost story is so powerful because of this paradox in love and pain, and it is reflected in the behavior of the creature, played brilliantly by both a puppet and actor Kara Davidson. With the openness and curiosity of a child, Frankenstein’s creature searches for love and connection only to inspire horror and violence toward themself, until they shriek with pain and lash out at the humans, running away to seek solace elsewhere. And what villain cannot relate to that story? This monster, dreamt up over 200 years ago, still delivers its compelling message of the duality of humanity, thanks to the power and prowess of Manual Cinema, and their unique vision in live theater.

Frankenstein played appropriately at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts building, built during the Gothic-revival era and converted into a haven for artists in 1898, which it has remained ever since. (Kim Campbell)

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Third Coast Review Staff
Third Coast Review Staff

Posts with the Third Coast Review Staff byline are written by a combination of writers, credited by section within the article.

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