In the darkest days of winter now, a cultural phenomenon takes place in Chicago, spread like nutella across venues city wide for eleven jam packed and glorious days: the Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival. It’s becoming a must see for locals and a major destination for tourists, and it's becoming something you have to book fast lest you be sold out of the performances. The fest delivers complex challenging works, visual feasts, neighborhood spectacles, family friendly events and adults only late nights. Truly something for everyone!
This year’s festival coincided with the region emerging from record cold, and I kicked off my overstuffed buffet of puppet deliciousness with Dead as a Dodo by Wakka Wakka, the third installation of the Animalia Trilogy which received its world premiere at the Chicago festival. Wakka Wakka is a company that divides its time between New York and Oslo, and the highly visual work faces no language barrier. A human and a dodo skeleton move through a mythic world facing challenges as they return to life. It's a road movie meets rhythm concert meets Jonah’s whale in the form of a glowing giant fish meets the hero's journey through layers and layers of a post apocalyptical world, and the puppeteers are starlit rocks. In the fairly down at its heels Victory Gardens Theatre, revived for the festival and showcasing this company, the piece seemed to be a cautionary tale with a hopeful note. Every moment of this work has some kind of revelation, whether it's the Dodo becoming Flesh or the Bone Caller bringing hoarding the remains of some long lost beings.
A word about the venue: I saw two pieces at this unshuttered-for-the-fest theater, and it reminded me how much I missed this space in the ever shifting constellation of Chicago theaters. It is always a tragedy for us to lose another storied stage, and being in this space once more made me hope that some visionary individual or organization is able to steer it to a new use that is live performance.
I was able to scoot over to the National Museum of Mexican Art and catch:La Liga Teatro Elástico doing The Beast Dance (or The Secret Spell of the Wild). Because of the frigid weather, much of this made-for-outside spectacle was not available to the vast crowd that showed up because a large chunk of the performance was moved inside to the museum theater which reached capacity even as a line was around the block. I did duck the Carlos Cortez exhibit at the museum and then see the parade of puppets that marched outside and through the park. Later I was able to see the fantastically engineered puppets themselves up close in an exhibition at the Puppet Hub: for the duration of the fest there is a pop up coffee shop with art shows of puppets at the Festival’s home: The Fine Arts Building at 410 Michigan Avenue. The Puppet Hub is adjacent to the building’s Venetian Court, so a visit is a must see for exploring this Chicago architectural gem. In addition to showcasing the Beast Puppets there was an astonishing exhibition of Michael Montenegro’s paintings and puppets. Like most of our master puppeteers, these artists are visual maestro’s who are also theatrical innovators. Creating objects that move us and tell deep stories requires a vast and varied skill set, and the Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival is rich beyond measure in artistry from a long global history.
My next stop was Little Carl, a collaboration with Michael Montenegro, Marvin Tate and the youth company of North Lawndale’s Theatre Y. A challenging work that deals with gun violence, difficult family relationships and trauma, it featured live music, poetry, shadow and table top puppetry. The allegorical plot that relates all of us to the inherent violence and the deep humanity of the city. It was a moving work that allowed space for conversation after the performers were done, and some of the most meaningful moments were the reflections of the young people who made the work.
Finally I headed to the Studebaker Theatre for the epic Book of Mountains and Seas, presented by the Festival in collaboration with Chicago Opera Theatre. Composer and librettist Huang Ruo has created a gorgeous opera with director and visual designer Basil Twist. The twelve singers from Ars Nova Copenhagen where the work originated are lit primarily from their scores on tablets allowing their faces to float around the sparse dark stage where magical beings arise: first a dragon, then suns, then a giant. The score is vocals with percussionists and harkens to traditional Chinese forms which may sound unsettling to ears unaccustomed to this music, but has a simple logic and a crystalline clarity. The work is inspired by an ancient Chinese compilation of myths with the same title which was first transcribed in the 4th century B.C. It is divided into four sections: The Legend of Pangu where the earth is formed, The Spirit Bird where a sea of silk and a flying shape create a myth of revenge, The Legend of Ten Suns, a creation tale that eventually explains our night and day, and Kua Fu Chasing the Sun, where a perplexed giant tries to hold the sun and dies trying giving us forests. There is an abstract universality to the slowly evolving visuals, like watching eons pass. The piece is evocative in a deeply spiritual way without me being able to put my finger on why: there is no human narrative to ground my emotions, just a sense of being connected to a vast universe that is telling an important story.
I came away from the festival into the fading light of its final day with a sense of sadness that this rich ten day immersion into beauty and meaning had to come to a close for another year (kinda like I feel at the end of every season), but compelled to tell everyone don’t miss this next year. This festival is a really important week where bits of wood and paper and metal take on life and tell us things about our human nature better than an actual human can. It is a chance to look at a handcrafted object that becomes a mirror of our souls.
For more information or to sign up to get emails about upcoming puppet activities go to https://chicagopuppetfest.org/ The 2024 Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival took place in Chicago January 18-28.
For more reviews go to www.TheatreInChicago.com