Dispatch: Puppet Theater Festival Closes With Puppetry Comic, Joyful, Grim and Gorgeous

Puppets have stories to tell. And they tell them in all sorts of fanciful and humanistic ways. The 6th annual Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival has come to an end and we are already  looking forward to next year. What better way to bring joy and amazement to January in Chicago. (This January has been particularly cold, drizzly and foggy.)

This is our last set of brief reviews of a sampling of Puppet Festival productions to whet your appetite for more puppetry experiences. Over the last two weeks, more than 100 puppet productions have been staged at two dozen venues all over Chicago. We lucky Chicagoans have had access to a wide range of classic and contemporary puppetry styles from around the world, created by puppet artists from Belgium, Chile, Norway, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, Poland, the U.S. and Chicago. Please enjoy our final reviews. 

Sarah Olmstead Thomas in Marooned! Photo by Glenn Ricci.

Marooned! A Space Comedy

In Marooned! A Space Comedy, an astronaut travels light years into space when she crash lands on a planet that seems desolate and yet has many of the absurdities of life on Earth. The creators and producers of Marooned! A Space Comedy are Alex and Olmstead out of Baltimore, Maryland, and the combination of music, storyline, and fun special effects made this a delightful 60 minutes. Sarah Olmstead Thomas plays the Astronaut and Alex Vernon is the puppeteer in black manipulating the puppets and the special effects.

Marooned! makes use of puppetry techniques like marionettes, shadow play, a spaceship on a stick floating against a small rolling canvas, and funny projections of puppets on film. The most endearing puppet was the little robot with one giant blue orb for an eye. The Robot does not speak but interacts with the Astronaut through the movement of the blue orb. Robot also serves as a telecommunications port to call for spaceship repair or to reach Earth. The bad news is that the call centers in space are as infuriating as they are on Earth with five billion callers ahead of you. The mechanics and repair people are also not reliable and close early for light-year-long vacations.

This was listed as a family-friendly show for all ages and there was an audience participation role to help Robot and Astronaut get back to Earth. The cue cards asked us to speak encouraging words to the Astronaut and Robot as they jumped into a black hole. I loved hearing the young children in the audience and their sense of wonder encouraged my own. The music included composers Kishi Bashi and Stefano Mastronardi for a perfect soundscape in space.

Marooned! was performed three times last weekend at the Chopin Theatre. (Kathy D. Hey)

Lunch With Sonia. Photograph ©2021 Richard Termine. 

Lunch With Sonia

On a drizzly January evening, a full house gathered to watch Lunch with Sonia from Loco7, the New York-based Latinx-run Colombian experimental theater ensemble. The story itself is simple, if difficult. Sonia tells 40 of her closest family members and friends to gather on a specific date in her house in Bogota. That is also the date, she tells them, that she will take her own life. “It’s time,” she says. “It’s my time.” Dressed in a pink robe and pink Crocs, Sonia sits in a big comfy chair in the middle of the room. Yellow and red roses lie on a table next to a bottle of champagne. The chair is her throne: she is the queen of the household. Everyone hovers around her. She seems so real that you forget she is a puppet.

Lunch with Sonia uses dance, music (including an especially haunting version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”), and two small puppets to tell her story. Appropriately, the biggest puppet of them all is Sonia herself. Details are important here. The mochila, a traditional Colombian bag, holds the oxygen tank that keeps her alive, and is itself a symbol of life. She is served a final meal of steak, chorizo, rice, and avocado––and a glass of champagne. She dances her last tango—oxygen mask and all. As she says her last words––“without tears,” in Spanish––she walks by the table and smells the roses one last time. At the end of the performance what is left behind is an empty chair, her pink Crocs and, of course, her indelible spirit.

Lunch with Sonia, an enthralling, moving, and joyful tribute to a life well lived, was performed three times last weekend at the Dance Center of Columbia College. (June Sawyers)

The Krabat cast. Photo by Therese Stuber.

Krabat

Krabat is the story of a boy, a homeless war orphan, presented by the companies Figurentheater Wilde & Vogel and Grupa Coincidentia (from Germany and Poland). The play is  based on the classic German children’s book Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Preussler, author of children’s books. Krabat, portrayed in this production by a puppet about two feet tall, finds shelter at a mill, learns how to be a miller for most of the week, but on the fifth day, he finds he can learn black magic (including how to turn himself into a raven). 

Krabat is staged by four actor/puppeteers and a musician. The company makes inventive use of a variety of puppets and masks; unlike most puppet theater, the actors themselves perform as characters. It’s a case of completely mixed puppet media. The puppets range from Krabat himself, operated by one or more puppeteers, several colorful hand puppets, a large horse’s head puppet and a skeleton marionette. The large masks are scary and intricately designed.

The four actors are Pawel Chomczyk, Stefan Wenzel, Dagmara Sowa and Michael Vogel. Musician/singer Charlotte Wilde performs a haunting setlist of songs and musical accompaniment on her violin, a piccolo, tambourine and other sound sources. She performs on a raised platform at the rear of the Zacek/McVay mainstage theater at the Biograph Theater. Krabat was presented in four performances last weekend. (Nancy S Bishop)

The Manual Cinema team performing Leonardo. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Leonardo, the Terrible Monster

Leonardo really isn’t a terrible monster; that’s the problem. He’s terrible at being a monster. He can’t scare anyone. Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, was presented by Manual Cinema at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. They use hundreds of illustrated puppets, fuzzy Muppet-style puppets, video projection, vintage overhead projectors, green screen techniques, live actors on live cameras, and a live music soundtrack. 

Leonardo determines he’s going to find someone he can scare and he begins a search for the scarediest kid in the world. With help from the librarian and the Scaredy Cat Kid Electronic Database, he comes up with a kid named Sam. It turns out even Sam is hard to scare. In the second part of the play, we meet Kerry, the second scarediest kid in the world. Sam and Kerry become friends and the play ends with a message for all of us—about being a wonderful friend.

Manual Cinema presented Leonardo three times last weekend at DuSable Black History Museum and at the Chicago Children's Theater in September 2022. Read our full review here. (Nancy S Bishop)

Little Carl in performance. Photo by Karl Soderstrom.

Little Carl

This production by Chicago’s Theatre Y and puppetry artisan Michael Montenegro addresses a Chicago and nationwide problem: gun violence. Theatre Y’s youth ensemble with actor/poet Marvin Tate create a dream play within a play, using puppets, masks, poetry and music. The imagery is conceived as an antidote to their despair about the impact of gun violence on their community. 

Theatre Y uses puppetry as an accessory to the live actors who perform as the characters, Little Carl and his parents. A symbolic puppet representing Little Carl is killed by gunfire and the performers mourn, sing, dance and dream about the boy and his death. Marvin Tate and Nadia Pillay play the parents. The Little Carls were played by Richard Bonds, Christopher Bonds and Terreon Collins. Other youth ensemble performers were Roesha Townsel and Braniah Townsel. 

Musicians Fred Jackson Jr. and Bill MacKay perform on tenor sax (Raymond) and guitar (MacKay) before the play begins and provide a solemn, moody musical background for Little Carl. The singers are Pastor Reshorna Fitzpatrick, Jasmine Keith and Kyndal Keith; the three-generation trio is from the historic Stone Temple Church in North Lawndale. 

Theatre Y, formerly based on the north side, moved to its new home in North Lawndale in 2022. Little Carl was presented in four performances last weekend in the Richard Christiansen Theater at the Biograph Theater. (Nancy S Bishop)

Kua Fu chases the Sun. Photo by Richard Termine.

Book of Mountains and Seas

Glorious celestial singing. Stirring percussion. And puppetry telling an ancient, abstract tale about mankind’s relationship with the planet. Book of Mountains and Seas, directed by renowned puppeteer Basil Twist, tells these stories through four ancient Chinese myths about the universe, creation, nature, human ambition and fate. 

The myths are presented in four scenes: The Legend of Pangu (the story of Earth’s birth); The Spirit Bird (a tiny bird, the vast sea and a drowning princess); The Legend of Ten Suns (nine suns tire of their routine but the remaining sun maintains a fixed schedule of light for night and day); and Kao Fu Chasing the Sun (a giant puppet wants to capture the sun).

The puppetry visualizes the myths, supported by projected legends. The 10 suns, glowing in blue changing to yellow and red, move around the stage in formations until nine of them rebel and are killed. The giant puppet comes to life and is maneuvered by four puppeteers. Accompanying the stunning visuals is music by Huang Ho, composer and librettist with the Danish Royal Opera. The stories are told in song (with lyrics based on the original Chinese texts) by 12 singers from Ars Nova Copenhagen and an orchestra of two percussionists.

Book of Mountains and Seas was presented by the Puppet Festival in partnership with the Chicago Opera Theater in three performances last weekend at the Studebaker Theater. Tour producer, the Beth Morrison Projects, develops, produces and tours productions of opera theater and music theater. (Nancy S Bishop)

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