2022 Festival Archive: Cabinet of Curiosity
Cabinet of Curiosity:
January 20-22, 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Scholarship and Resources
Festival Performance Review
Bridges Afloat: Considerations on Connection
by Jess Bass
The theater was packed, while more audience waited in the lobby hoping for a seat. If people could have, they would have sat in the aisles of the Edlis Neeson Theater within the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). This was the last show in the Cabinet of Curiosity’s three-day run of Sea Change, presented by the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. It feels almost cliché to say, but this was my first time stepping into a theater since the start of COVID. What a familiar and yet unpracticed feeling to be shoulder to shoulder with a stranger. And then the curtain parted and the show began. It was an hour of visual theater, spectacle and unique handmade devices that asked the crafter in all of us: How did they do that?
In my interview with Frank Maugeri, the founder and artistic director of Cabinet of Curiosity, he went into detail about the type of puppets featured in Sea Change. Bunraku techniques were used for the mermaid puppet to create “a presence that was large, if not larger, than the actor performing [her] voice.” Giant puppets were articulated as a whale (a ginormous backpack puppet) and the moon (suspended on a man-made crane), both “built to dominate the stage and the story.” The sharks were rod puppets to allow for movement through the audience, and a three-part crankie was hidden inside the set to create a moment of surprise.
Cabinet productions consistently apply the aesthetics of scale to create affective responses, and Sea Change was no exception. Originally produced in the summer of 2021 for an outdoor setting, “The puppets needed to be larger than life, ’cause outdoors everything gets very small very quickly. We wanted to compete with the scale, so that when [the puppets] got close to the audience, they felt a bit intimidating and exciting versus tiny things which can be hard to read outdoors,” said Maugeri. He expressed a frustration that the translation from the outdoor to indoor performance spaces produced unsatisfactory results, as the puppets’ scale within the confines of the MCA theater bound them to the stage and interactions with the audience were limited to the sharks’ movement through the aisles. For Maugeri, the larger-than-life scale of an object creates a sense of aliveness and taps into the emotional intention of the object and connection to the audience.
The MCA version of the production was created in five weeks, and during that time the script evolved and a new cast was hired. Cabinet pivoted the script to speak to the feminine divine and, therefore, needed a cast of female performers. Maugeri’s mission for this iteration of the show was to empower emerging female artists through collaboration and make visible their roles of authorship and power. Cabinet’s “moral obligation is important to the objective of good art- making and the history and politics of puppetry,” said Maugeri.
From the “Mermaid’s Tale” to the “Whale Song” to the “Moon’s Lullaby,” each act was thematically linked by its relation to the sea, yet the puppets from one number to the next rarely overlapped. Each featured character seemed to claim its own space within the sea, isolated from the others waiting patiently backstage to tell their stories to the audience. The only time all the puppets were shown together was after the actors took a bow and reconvened in the lobby for the audience to get an up-close look at the mechanisms and craft of each puppet.
These giant puppets, who demanded the whole cast be activated to support their performance, were featured in a narrative that was woven together through musical vignettes. The words of the songs and the complete attention on a specific character for the duration of an act transformed the collective audience into a singular character somewhere between crewmate and psychologist. Similarly, the one(ness) of each puppet, compared to the amount of strength and hands it took to operate and perform it, points to a collective nature that transforms the “one” to physically and metaphorically represent more than itself. The shape-shifting transformation between one signifying more, and more signifying one, parallels a very similar pattern that we’ve seen since the start of the COVID pandemic: that of the relationship between the individual and the community.
For those seated amongst a masked audience looking upwards towards the stage, Sea Change expounded upon the allegories of today in monologues conditioned by contemporary feelings of anxiety, separation and determination. Sea Change builds to a dreamlike effect through its variety show, abstracted-narrative format, inviting the audience to look inwards and find points of connection. Each vignette was presented as a modernized fable where the songs were anecdotal rather than moralizing, functioning as internalized expressions of ephemerality and loneliness. Similar to a virus, the sea doesn’t care about or differentiate between goodness or badness, and yet demands new sets of behaviors and manners from us if we are to survive.
Each act worked to break and abandon conditioned unhealthy cycles. This was most clear in the last scene when a fire aboard the ship burns all of the chef’s onions, which the crew had been surviving on. The performance’s conclusion is the brilliant yet obvious choice that the crew will fish for food. The simplicity of Sea Change’s metaphor asks the audience to question what patterns of survival are we clinging to as a society that we do not need anymore. How can we shift our patterns of attention to create patterns that better support us as a collective? If we are to continue in these waters for the unforeseeable future, what is right in front of us that will help us the most? True to Cabinet of Curiosity’s mission, they start a conversation that gives hope the last word.
About the Performance
Museum of Contemporary Art
205 E. Pearson St.
Cabinet of Curiosity transforms Sea Change, their celebrated outdoor exploration of the power of the sea and the feminine divine for the MCA mainstage. It is a series of wild, strange, lovely puppet shows written by emerging female playwrights and lyricists Liz Chidester, Kasey Foster, Bethany Thomas, and Lindsey Noel Whiting, with original musical compositions by Manae Hammond and Charlie Otto, additional text by Seth Bockley, and the searcher performed by Time Brickey. Giant puppets, mechanical devices, and original, live music weave together to create an evening of pageantry, puppetry, wonder and hope.
With support from the Artstour Fund
A Deep Dive Trident of Tales by Scott Gryder, PickInSix Conversations
Review: Cabinet of Curiosity Sees Sea Change at Chicago Puppet Theater Fest by Angela Allyn, Third Coast Review