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  • Angela Allyn

The ground breaking action of small (and large) objects at the Chicago International Puppet Festival

It is difficult to portray the significance of Chicago International Puppet Festival on our local creative community, because the shifts that occur from exposure to a wide variety of exquisite quality works of object theater from around the world won’t be felt right away. But make no mistake, this is a landmark event in the Chicago cultural calendar and one to make room for. And if this year was any indication, as soon as they announce tickets are on sale, jump, because many of the most important works sell out right away. In the darkest days of winter it is magical to sit in spaces all over town partaking of bits of light illuminated fabric and paper to witness the alchemy of creativity. This year marks the sixth iteration of the festival which became annual last year. It is a great boon to Chicago and it was a sublime experience.

The festival takes place over 12 days and features well over 100 events that range from performances, workshops,and symposia, all of which catalyze a kind of creative seeding of our artistic assets.

The festival kicked off with a flourish at the newly renovated Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building with a massive and imaginative Moby Dick by festival regulars Plexus Polaire. The narrator Ishmael is both an engaging real human and a puppet, but Melville’s text makes only a brief appearance: the beauty and meaning of this work is the visuals, which range from a gargantuan curtain that reveals itself mistily to be a whale, to tiny miniature boats chasing enormous white whales. The humanity of the sailors and the quiet beauty of the whales and the sea are unforgettable. The blubber peeling of a caught whale gives a visceral horror to this iconic tale of murderous obsession. There are underwater scenes of ethereal loveliness, such as the dance of the mermaids which I could have watched for hours. The live band on stage creates a sound sculpture that haunts and moves. Director Yngvild Aspeli plays with scale: Ahab is a tiny puppet, a life size puppet and also a frightening giant puppet as his mania grows. Everything about this show is gorgeously crafted: Moby Dick as re-envisioned by Plexus Polaire is a visual masterpiece that amazes and disturbs.

One of the hallmarks of the festival is founder Blair Thomas’s pre-show speeches which link the audience to the artists in his charming personal way: Thomas knows these artists and has been inspired by them in his own process and career. As our puppet eminence gris, or in this case neon green as he sported with hair and beard to warm up our winter, his anecdotal stories have a way of making the festival feel like a gathering of friends and creative compatriots curated by our favorite uncle. The inclusion this year of the Puppet Hub, featuring exhibitions and a gathering space for audience and artists alike upstairs from the Studebaker in the quirky Fine Arts Building, furthers this sense that we are all exploring and experiencing as a community. And getting to the Hub will give you the signature experience of riding an antique elevator with an operator!

The festival utilized a wide variety of spaces: new to me was the cavernous Harold Washington Cindy Pritzker Auditorium far below the City where Theodora Skipitares’ Grand Panorama took place. This work was compelling and highly educational: I did not know that Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. The show is, in the first sections, drawn from his lectures and writings on the subject. He was enamored by what he perceived as the truth value of the medium. Douglass’s dedication to the subject was then brought forward in 1900 by W.E.B. Du Bois who gathered and exhibited a remarkable collection of photographs of African Americans at work. Finally, the work concludes with the words of so-called Poet of Code Joy Buolamwini, the MIT researcher who founded the Algorithmic Justice League: in this world, technology is never neutral. It was a chilling ending as the visuals that had layered themselves upon our minds struck home with this truth. The piece utilized a live cellist (Mazz Swift who also composed the score) and many types of puppetry: a spectacle puppet head of Douglass, shadow puppets, stick puppets— it was sophisticated in its simplicity. What I noticed was that in the beginning I shared Douglass’s thrill with photography, beguiled by his words, but subtly as the show went on I began to be aware of what we do not see, and left the show disturbed by the visual propaganda that surrounds us. This show is a true mind opener, a revelation and a warning.

Back at the Studebaker, Basil Twist’s landmark work Symphonie Fantastique was presented as a film with a talk back for one single showing.Originally created in 1998, this legendary work put Twist on the map and led to commissions and awards. It was reprised in 2018 and filmed and I for one will never visualize classical music quite the same way again. Twist had set out to create an abstract puppet show, and he elevated materials to a new artistic potentiality: feathers, streamers and fabric illustrate the structure of Berlioz’s music. Twist used a 1000 gallon aquarium as the medium and frame for his exploration and it is truly genius as objects and color dance. The film features a live pianist, Christopher O’Riley and the close ups of his playing are a joy to behold. A benefit of the film as opposed to the live performance was that we could see the effort that the puppeteers went to in creating this effortless looking visual: humans suspended from flexible bands, splashing, slogging, in a choreographed routine every bit as compelling as what the audience sees: the best show is often backstage. Symphonie Fantastique is a work of boundless imagination that will stay in your eyeballs for years. It is a great boon to audiences that this film can circulate and more can see this piece.

Across town at one of the other heavily used fest spaces,and regular home to puppet theater, in the charming Chopin Theatre, the Canadian company of La Fille du Laitier created Macbeth Muet: a wordless rendition of the Scottish play where folded paper, paper cups,paper towel, crushed eggs and buckets of fake blood artfully tell the timeless tale. You know something is up when the first row of mismatched upholstered chairs has raincoats on them which you are exhorted to wear. The preciseness and specificity of Marie-Hélène Bélanger Dumas and Jérémie Francoeur in portraying every emotion and plot point is a miracle to witness. The focus of the energy makes this powerful drama and also very funny. Macbeth Muet was a perfect example of what makes the festival so important: international artists creating stunning works of compelling beauty and resonance in intimate performances that inspire us. The simplicity and ordinariness of the materials used to create this remarkable work gives hope to even the most financially challenged performer. And so many times as I sat in the audience I heard students talking about what they had seen and what they were working on– I cannot wait to experience the seeds of this festival when they flower. This year the fest was finally able to return to bringing in foreign performers once again, and this kind of international cross fertilization is essential to building our homegrown community.

My final stop on the whirlwind tour of the Chicago International Puppet Festival was hometown favorites Manual Cinema in their poetic Frankenstein. It is difficult to explain Manual Cinema to someone who has not seen their work, so usually I just say go! See whatever they make! Utilizing cinematic techniques, intensely hand crafted objects as well as their signature shadow puppet technique on an overhead projector, accompanied by musicians on stage creating a rich sound score, they create works of astounding physical beauty, but works that also reveal rich stories. Here they overlap the story of Mary Shelley, an early feminist often overshadowed by her partner Percy, with the timeless tale she wrought. This version links her lost child intimately with the brought-to-life creature giving new angles and poignancy to this oft told tale. It is so human to want to give life. And yet who can control what they create. So resonant in a week of objects that make us laugh and cry– so meaningful as we contemplate the growth and sophistication of AI. The use of close up live feed cameras interspersed with the shadow puppetry added a classic film noir feel and heightened the emotion of this iconic work. It was joyful to see our homegrown puppet masters own the mainstage of the fest and it is worth noting that as far as I know two of the co artistic directors of this magnificent collective can trace their lineage back to Redmoon and Blair Thomas, showing how the fecund the DNA of puppetry in Chicago is, and how much fruit it bears.

The Festival, January 18-29, 2023 is over now, and all the puppets are crated and on the way home, the puppeteers resting and heading on to other shows. There is nothing like the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival in the US at this time– you will need a passport to see anything that compares. It is a testament to the vision and commitment of Blair Thomas and his talented and dedicated staff and board that this wonder exists. Mark your calendars for late January next year and get on the mailing list for their events throughout the year which build up to the festival. Go to for information and to sign up for emails. Don’t miss one of the true cultural marvels of this town.


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