Opening within just a few days of each other at two major theaters this past week were a couple of richly adventurous, poetic, world premiere productions: “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” at Lookingglass Theatre, and “The Hunter and The Bear” at Writers Theatre. And while they are different in many ways, they are closely linked by two things: A clearly spoken devotion to the age-old art of storytelling, and the use of the most artful puppetry and music as an important element in the telling of the tales.

‘MR. AND MRS. PENNYWORTH’
Highly recommended
When: Through Feb. 19, 2017
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Tickets: $40 – $75
Info: www.LookingglassTheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission

Written and directed by Lookingglass ensemble member Doug Hara, “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” is set in about the same period as that of “The Hunter and the Bear,” but in Europe, and is both the portrait of a marriage, and an exploration of how folktales and fairy tales are kept alive, and sometimes reborn. Featuring a beguiling cast of two — Lindsey Noel Whiting and Samuel Taylor (who are husband and wife in real life) — it is narrated by Mrs. Pennyworth, a petite but feisty proto-feminist and self-styled anthropologist, and it even includes a line (spoken by a classic monster) that proclaims only women should be allowed to tell the great heroic stories. The production also marks a major collaboration with Manual Cinema (the Chicago-based performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company that combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and innovative sound and music to create immersive visual stories), and with Blair Thomas, one of this city’s master puppet artists.

Mr. Pennyworth is a shy, itinerant storyteller and puppeteer who has traveled the world, specializing in tales of Norse mythology as well as classic fairy tales, all told from the stage of the cart that has served as both home and stage. His encounter with the independent-minded woman who becomes Mrs. Pennyworth is one of the more charming elements in this story, but is not to be revealed here.

What consumes much of the piece is the pair’s attempt to renew interest in the Big Bad Wolf so often at the heart of fairy tales, as well as to tame the evil of several Norse monsters. It is a pursuit that leads to a collision of fiction and real-life. And while I can’t say I always followed the path laid out here, I was never less than fully consumed in the mystery and danger of it all.

The delicate but steely Whiting, and the more contained Taylor are a match made in heaven whose acting skills, and puppet voices and manipulations are so polished yet natural you almost take them for granted in this exquisitely imagined and very Lookingglass-like work.

The cast of "The Hunter and The bear," a collaboration between Writers Theatre and PigPen Theatre Co. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The cast of “The Hunter and The Bear,” a collaboration between Writers Theatre and PigPen Theatre Co. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

‘THE HUNTER AND THE BEAR’
Highly recommended
When: Through Jan. 29, 2017
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Info: www.writerstheatre.org
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission

“The Hunter and The Bear” is streaked with a different sort of danger as pioneering-type adventurer-laborers set out to make their fortune in an undeveloped, lumber-rich Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s (powerfully evoked by set designer Collette Pollard’s fabulously muscular, multi-level set of massive tree trunks, bridges and ladders). Subtitled “a new musical folktale,” it’s the creation of the multi-talented PigPen Theatre Co. of New York, and is directed by Stuart Carden. PigPen is an ensemble of seven young, charismatic actor-musicians, all male, and the story they spin is decidedly masculine in nature — a father-son saga that unfolds among a group of timber prospectors. Part ghost story and campfire tale, it also is a tragic psychological thriller involving the hunt for a bear amid ghostly reminders of a devastating forest fire of many years earlier.

In this richly theatrical ballad, each member of the ensemble creates a vivid portrait. And not surprisingly, most of these men have a secret, and a far from unsullied past.

Ben Ferguson is Tobias, the widowed dad devastated when his beloved son dies along the way. Ginger-haired Ryan Melia beautifully captures the sweetness and curiosity of Elliot, Tobias’ seven-year-old boy, embodied by a life-size puppet designed by Lydia Fine (who also designed the ideal costumes, and the mysterious Smoke Girl figure). And Dan Weschler, who doubles as pianist, expertly conjures Lewis, the haunted vagrant who sets much of the story in motion. Alex Falberg is Prescott, the project manager with laughably high-flying oratorical skills, and there is fine work from Curtis Gillen, Matt Nuernberger and Arya Shahi in this ensemble that easily doubles on guitars, banjo, percussion and more for a slew of rousing numbers.

The storytelling could use a trim — especially the overdone pseudo-mysticism in the show’s final section. But all told, this is an enthralling, ingeniously spun tale, and one that, in these days of land rights battles and sweeping fires, easily taps into a deep vein of American life.