When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Blind Summit at Chicago Shakespseare Theater Upstairs, 300 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $35 ($20 for those under 35)
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 70 minutes with no intermission
No doubt about it: Blind Summit Theatre’s “The Table” is one of the more astonishing 70 minutes of theater, puppetry, philosophy, whimsy, mischief, eye-hand-brain coordination and total brilliance to be exported from London to Chicago in recent years.
The whole exilarating, giddiness-inducing experience, which plays through Oct. 27 only in the intimate Upstairs space at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (part of the invaluable World’s Stage series), can be summed up in countless ways.
A billboard might proclaim: See Moses, that Old Testament prophet, hammer out the stone tablets, lead his people out of the desert and every once in a while break into zero gravity mode, or a moonwalk-style dance worthy of Michael Jackson. Hear this “really old Jew” tell jokes — but more crucially, begin to realize that the ultimate joke is on him. Listen in on the puppet’s conversation with God. Think about the Passover Seder in a whole new way. Be reminded of the inevitability of mortality. Learn every trick-of-the-trade you need to know about acting and puppetry technique in one whip-smart lesson. And oh, yes, be astonished and delighted, and laugh out loud.
While the center of attention here is a puppet with an angular cardboard head, the scrawniest little cloth legs and arms, and a tiny belly that, when set in motion, suggests that the sex urge is still alive and well, Moses is not alone. Three fully visible puppeteers of exceptional wit and physical agility very visibly manipulate his every move in a highly choreographed, yet playfully anarchic, at moments wildly improvisatory style that draws loosely on the Japanese bunraku tradition.
Mark Down is the marvelously droll voice and controlling persona of the show, who fittingly works Moses’ head and left hand. Sean Garratt, winningly prone to laughing fits, is the younger, bearded, slightly daft fellow who works the puppet’s right hand and butt. And Irena Stratieva, an impish beauty with dancing eyes and graceful moves, is the percussionist in this crazy band of three-plus-one, moving Moses’ little feet (shod in doll-size black shoes), and working throughout the show in such a hunched position that you hope her contract promises regular massage therapy sessions.
All of this plays out on a large rectangular stage — the table of the title — whose edges and precipices are fully (and hilariously) explored during the course of the show. Moses, remember, is something of a maverick, and he has no compunction about curling up and lying down, or using his tiny little body to push the table right aross the stage. And it is on the table, too, that “the last 12 hours” of his life are told “in real time.” (Fear not, it takes only about three phenomenal minutes.)
Devised and directed by a Blind Summit team of seven (including Down, who gets the directing credit), it is sometimes difficult to sense just how much of “The Table” changes from performance to performance. On the night I caught the show, a brief segment of audience participation resulted in the loss of Moses’ right hand. Maybe it was planned; maybe it was spontaneous. Either way, all the performers, including the puppet, flew with it in this show that is, at its core, a perfect little explosion of existential euphoria.