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Chicago stages await international puppet invasion

Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival engages with a standing puppet. (Photo: Severio Truglia)

Puppet theater is an ancient art form that some sources date back to the 5th century B.C. in Greece. But in recent decades it has been reborn as an intensely modern element in all things theatrical.

When: Jan. 19 – 29
Where: Multiple sites throughout Chicago
Tickets: $10 – $40 (vary with show)
Info: www.ChicagoPuppetFest.org

During the past few seasons alone, a slew of Chicago shows have used puppets to drive or enhance their storytelling, employing a wide range of both classic and hi-tech techniques in the process. Puppets of every variety were a presence in Paramount Theater’s “The Little Mermaid,” the Joffrey Ballet’s new version of “The Nutcracker,” Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Das Rheingold,” Blind Summit’s “The Table,” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Victory Gardens’ Chicago premiere of the Broadway hit, “Hand to God,” PigPen’s “The Hunter and the Bear” at Writers Theater, and Lookingglass Theatre’s “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth.”

Beyond Chicago, there is, of course, “The Lion King,” Julie Taymor’s puppetry masterwork, as well as “War Horse,” developed by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, and “Avenue Q” (notable for its puppets’ sexual antics). Clearly, this is an art form that has long since transcended its role as a popular children’s entertainment.

And now make way for a further invasion of puppets — from marionettes, shadow puppets, hand puppets and tiny toy puppets, to animated objects that behave like puppets. That’s because the second bi-annual Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival — which, according to Blair Thomas, its founder and artistic director, is now the largest such event in the U.S. -—will take up residence on more than 20 stages citywide from Jan. 19-29. Celebrating some of the most remarkable works of contemporary puppetry, the festival also signifies Chicago’s growing reputation as a leader in the art form’s renaissance.

A scene from "Chiflon el Silencio del Carbon", a puppet work by Chile's Silencio Blanco. (Photo: Marcelo Ultreras)

A scene from “Chiflon el Silencio del Carbon”, a puppet work by Chile’s Silencio Blanco. (Photo: Marcelo Ultreras)

“The puppetry renaissance began in the late 1970s, and then Julie Taymor’s work moved it into the mainstream,” said Thomas, whose extraordinary puppet creations are a vivid presence in “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth.”

“In recent years many styles of puppetry have infiltrated the ballet, opera and theater —and not in a small way. Yet puppetry also remains a form all its own, and one still unique for most audiences. Of course all along there have been puppetry festivals in Europe, where the art is still more advanced than it is here — something that infuriates me. One example [of Europe’s expertise] is ‘Cendres (‘Ashes’), a work by the French-Norwegian company Plexus Polaire [to be performed Jan. 20-22 at Victory Gardens Theater]. A disturbing thriller that straddles fiction and reality, it tells the true story of a Norwegian arsonist, and what the company describes as ‘the mad fire at the bottom of every human being.’ What ‘Cendres’ does is not language-based — although it is based on a book — but it has an extraordinary level of dramaturgy.”

Another visiting company, Silencio Blanco of Chile, takes a more earthy approach to its work as it draws on a story by author Baldomero Lillo for “Chiflon, Silence of the Coal,” the story of a young miner who must travel to one of the most dangerous mines in his country in order to keep working. The show (making its North American debut Jan. 19-22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago), is performed in silence, and uses white marionettes constructed of recycled newspaper to tell a tale that “captures the violence of the global economy.”

According to Miranda Díaz, an actress with the company, the piece was created before the highly publicized 2010 mining accident in Copiapo, Chile, where 33 miners were rescued after a long ordeal underground.

“‘Chiflon’ started as an idea designed to bring back the old trades that have been forgotten by our society — a fast world where everything disappears and nobody cares,” said Diaz. “We wanted to show that for us our own story is important, and it is part of both our history and global history. The case of those 33 miners — it is an accident that happens in mines all over the world. We used Lillo’s story because he was the son in a mining family — a man who shows the reality from his own eyes and experiences. We used newspaper for our puppets because we wanted to do something unique with recycled material. … In our work we try to show the old trades, with anonymous characters who are at the same time known to everyone but have been  silenced by our society.”

“Puppets force us to watch ourselves. We create an illusion, but everything is also real.”

The New York-based Great Small Works company also delves into history in the form of a bilingual Yiddish-English play, “Muntergang and Other Cheerful Downfalls” (performed Jan. 26-28 at the Dance Center of Columbia College). The work revisits the performances of the radical 20th century puppeteers Zuni Maud and Yosi Cutler, two Jewish immigrants from what is now Poland and Lithuania, who met in New York, became involved in the Yiddish theater and leftist politics, and traveled the world with their shows in the 1920s and ’30s.

“We’ve drawn on some of their existing graphics and satirical scripts, which referenced everything from Mae West to ‘The Dybbuk’,” said Jenny Romaine, a company member. “But we’ve also created something of a biopic about these two men who became such sophisticated, modernist artists at a moment when there was a huge population of Yiddish speakers.”

Great Small Works will present "Muntergang and Other Cheerful Downfalls" as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. (Photo: Erik McGregor)

Great Small Works will present “Muntergang and Other Cheerful Downfalls” as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. (Photo: Erik McGregor)

Among the other highlights of the Festival are works by Chicago artists, including: The masterful Michael Montenegro, who uses puppets and masks in “A Konkatenation of Kafka,” a work inspired by the writings of Kafka; Rough House’s take on “Ubu the King,” Alfred Jarry’s play about a tyrant; Manual Cinema’s “Magic City,” a live cinematic shadow puppet show inspired by an Edith Nesbit book and commissioned by the Chicago Children’s Theatre; “Diamond Dogs,” a sci-fi piece by The House Theatre of Chicago that draws on notions of body modification; and Stephanie Diaz’s “T(W)O Marias,” an immersive work inspired by the surreal beauty of the American southwest.

So just what is it that sets puppetry apart from other forms of theater and makes it so appealing to modern audiences?

As Blair Thomas explained: “I think it’s the amalgamation of aesthetics —  the organic rawness of the older techniques that are now blended with new technology in ways that maintain the quality of human grit. There is something about puppets that connect us to another world. They have a hypnotic quality that gives credence to the irrational, which is such a necessary part of the human condition. They’re not alive, but they appear to be.”

A puppet from "Cendres," a Plexus Polair production about a Norwegian arsonist, presented as parrt of the Chicago Internatioanl Puppet Theater Festival. (Photo: Kristin Aafloy Opdan)

A puppet from “Cendres,” a Plexus Polair production about a Norwegian arsonist, presented as parrt of the Chicago Internatioanl Puppet Theater Festival. (Photo: Kristin Aafloy Opdan)