2023 Festival Archive: Nasty, Brutish & Short

Nasty, Brutish & Short:
A Puppet Cabaret

January 20-21 & 27-28, 2023

Links Hall

Presented by Links Hall, Rough House & Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Scholarship and Resources

Delightful, Provocative, and Sadly Fleeting: Nasty, Brutish, & Short Is a Phenomenal Night of Theater

An Essay by Jesse Njus

Nasty, Brutish, & Short: A Puppet Cabaret is always a fabulous night of short-form puppetry. A member of the Puppet Slam Network, NBS takes place regularly throughout the year, including over both weekends of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival (CIPTF). The Friday, January 20, and Saturday, January 21, 2023, performances were curated by Myra Su and Caitlin McLeod, presented by Rough House Theater and Links Hall, and hosted by the Noah Ginex Puppet Company comprising a brilliant cast of eccentric hand puppets who provide superlative MC’ing and supremely entertaining interludes between performances. A particular shout-out to Jameson Jarvis Ralphonzo, puppet host extraordinaire!

The diversity of puppetry styles is one of the hallmarks and strengths of NBS. In addition to Jameson and his colleagues who host the show, the Friday night performances included another hand-and-rod puppet named Dr. Rita, who took real medical questions from the audience (being puppeteered by a human board-certified family nurse practitioner); a large-scale, hand-puppet clitoris (and vagina) that discussed the lived reality of being a trans clitoris in a body taking testosterone; two shadow-puppet performances (one live and one film); a suitcase crankie that incorporated shadow puppets; a stuffed monkey with a banana-based business investment opportunity; and a vignette from Les Anges au Plafond—the team behind R.A.G.E., one of CIPTF’s presentations—in which puppeteer Camille Trouvé meditated on the very nature of puppetry itself through the medium of her puppet.

Despite the incredibly disparate nature of the performances, Friday night developed the theme of relationships, whether our relationships with each other, with nature, or with ourselves. The evening opened with “The Soup and the Nuts” by Myra Kalaw and Larry Leopoldo, described as “a shadow puppetry piece about two mismatched creatures caught in an act of communion.” The short piece depicts a relationship between a duck and a shark, who exchange words, share a meal, and then appear to chase and, perhaps, swallow each other. The uncertain nature of their relationship created an interesting connection to the two other shadow pieces, the film Mother Water and the crankie “Kopfkino,” both of which represent nature as a powerful, even mystical, force. Lindsay Ball’s crankie, titled after the German word for imagining something with great clarity in your mind’s eye, illustrates “the real history and science of crickets, infusing them with a heroic sweetness and a bit of magic.” Through recorded narration, Ball tells us that there are more than nine hundred species of crickets and that although some mythologies believe crickets to be extremely old and wise, in reality they live only ninety days. The beauty of the relationship between the painted images and the shadows of the crankie emphasizes the nature of the crickets themselves as “hopeless romantics that spend their short time singing of love on hot summer nights under blankets of stars.” This imagery is both lovely and sad, reminding us that while we might be nostalgic for the sound of crickets chirping on warm summer evenings, humans are complicit in making crickets’ short lives even shorter than they already are.

While “Kopfkino” is gentle in its reminder of the ways humans can poison nature, Brittany Clemons and Maisie O’Brien’s Mother Water is far more explicit in its critique of human culpability in crimes that perhaps can only be rectified through the power of natural—or rather supernatural—forces. “Produced as a proof of concept for Brittany Clemons’s larger work ‘Dr. Buzzard & the Dixieland Terrors,’” Mother Water engages African-American folklore as a means of resistance. The shadow-puppet film focuses on Grandfather narrating the tale of Mami Wata to his grandchildren, recounting the history of enslaved people who jumped into the ocean during the Middle Passage and whose “vengeful spirits survived in the form of Mami Wata,” a protector and a healer of enslaved peoples who searches for those who were stolen. If a Mami Wata cannot find their lost relatives, they either return to the ocean or stay in the community and “attempt to pass for human,” although they can never quite fit in. After the grandchildren leave to go play, the camera zooms in on Grandfather’s silhouette, and his eye briefly becomes a green fish eye before the blackout. In Mother Water, humanity and nature merge into folklore, creating a spirit that is both avenger and protector, symbolized by a grandfather who is no whitewashed Uncle Remus but a storyteller of great power. His tales give protection and serve as a warning to those who are (or whose ancestors were) complicit in the crimes Mami Wata avenges.

If the shadow performances critiqued relationships, Madigan Burke and Little Guy—a very large hand-puppet clitoris (in a very large vagina) who is “a stand-up cum-edian”—took a far more comedic approach to a serious topic, delivering a performance that fit perfectly in the genre of stand-up comedy while addressing very real questions about trans bodies, hormones, and sex. Burke’s performance received a callback from Dana Kogan’s hand-and-rod puppet Dr. Rita, who was thrilled about the issues previously addressed by Burke. “Questions with Dr. Rita” formed a wonderful parallel to Burke’s piece, since Dr. Rita relied entirely on questions from the audience. Dr. Rita’s humor was intended to put the audience at ease so that they would be willing to ask personal medical questions. Both Dr. Rita and Little Guy served as wonderful reminders that adults don’t have many trusted people to ask for advice about health, sex, or relationships—hence the durability of advice columnists, the self-help industry, and the perpetuation of quack doctors, making Little Guy’s desire to be the sex-advice equivalent of Clippy (Microsoft Word’s animated paperclip virtual assistant) a very reasonable goal and Dr. Rita’s common-sense advice a breath of fresh air.

The remaining two performances of the night were both absurdist commentaries on relationships, although in decidedly different ways. “Ultimate Banana Machine” by Rocio “Chio” Cabrera-Coz and Jacob Cabrera-Coz featured Monkey—a stuffed toy with a tie around its neck, signifying that he’s a businessman—who is interested in finding investors for his remarkable Ultimate Banana Machine (represented by a cardboard box labeled “Ultimate Banana Machine”). Monkey puts a (real) banana in the machine and out comes a bigger (but still real) banana! In the final demonstration something goes wrong, and a human-sized banana—incredibly creepy and menacing, covered like a Halloween ghost in a yellow sheet and a yellow neutral mask—crawls out of the UBM and is shot by Monkey, who once again urges the audience to invest in the machine. While this piece is both hilarious and wonderfully performed, it also serves as a reminder to be careful what you wish for. 

Puppets and puppet shows focus on the liveness of objects, and where there is life there is sentience (even if it’s a banana). That way madness lies, as the final performance of the night reminds us. This piece was performed by Les Anges au Plafond using two of the puppets from R.A.G.E. as completely different characters in a completely different context. Puppeteer Camille Trouvé wears the main puppet, Simone, on the front of her body so that she controls the puppet’s torso, head, and arms, while the puppet’s legs are actually Trouvé’s. Simone, a Frenchwoman, introduces herself to the audience as a specialist in the science of language and perception disorder who has come to tell us about a particularly interesting case study whom she has met—a lady who thinks she can make inert material become alive. Do we understand? Is she saying this correctly? She looks behind her, and Trouvé leans to the side so we can see her talk to Simone and answer yes. So begins a wonderful and far-too-brief conversation between Simone and Trouvé, in which Trouvé promises Simone that she is not attempting to control the puppet—that in fact Trouvé has “spent many years trying to give her voice, her energy, maybe even her thought to inert material in order to make it alive.” When Trouvé confesses that she sometimes practices in front of a mirror, Simone accuses her of narcissism. As Simone gets worked up, she is unsure if it is her or Trouvé, since “sometimes the passion tries to take control of the therapist.” 

The therapist is, of course, Simone, and the passion is the puppeteer—Simone is a puppet therapist trying to help a patient (her puppeteer) who cannot control her passionate belief that she can make inert matter come to life. When Trouvé again denies wanting control, Simone slowly folds up and lays still (lifeless?) until a voice is heard shouting: “Where is she?!” Simone sits up in shock as another puppet suddenly appears (a puppet also worn by the puppeteer, whose arms and legs are the puppet’s arms and legs but whose head and torso are invisible inside the puppet). This new character apologizes to the audience and leads Simone back to the psychiatric ward where she is a patient who believes and talks to people in an imaginary world. The puppet talking to the puppeteer is, in this case, not unlike a human being talking to the divine—is there a Power who brought our inert clay to life? Does this Being control our fate? Are those who believe they talk to the divine mad? And what can we say about puppeteers, who bring objects to life—objects who are not aware of the power behind them (or are they)?

If Friday night focused on decolonizing and queering both human and nonhuman relationships through the medium of puppetry, Saturday night questioned the ways we measure our humanity through objects by analyzing their figurative function as measurements of success and intelligence, as well as their mundane function as measurements of time and space. For those who saw Camille Trouvé’s performance Friday night, its existential meditation may well have resonated throughout Saturday evening’s performances. The program began with creative duo Livsmedlet’s folding rulers and continued with Rough House’s tensegrity sphere puppet, Little Uprisings’s cardboard fist, Gabriel Chalfin-Piney’s all-edible (mostly matzah) puppets, Sarah Nolen’s finger puppets and kitchen timer, and finally Coriolis Teatro de Objetos’s wordless puppet film about the arrival of winter and Theatre Nobody’s shadow-puppet play about a bee trying to sell honey.

As puppeteers know, any object can be brought to life; an object does not need to be humanoid or anthropomorphic to be a puppet. The Finnish duo behind the creative collaboration Livsmedlet (Ishmael Falke and Sandrina Lindgren) performed “Full Measures,” a piece which served as a brilliant contrast to their CIPTF production Invisible Lands. While Invisible Lands is deeply invested in embodiment and the physicality of bodies, for NBS Falke and Lindgren stood onstage in loose, dark-colored clothing while holding yellow collapsible carpentry rulers. As they spoke, they folded and unfolded the rulers—at first, the rulers seemed to measure and clip their sentences, but as the piece went on, the rulers became metaphors for the minute ways in which we quantify and map our lives. The rulers illuminate the increasingly specific answers each character gives to the question “Where do you live?” as they progress from vague directions in their early answers to exact longitude and latitude in their later answers. 

The increasing specificity of their replies bonds the characters as the literal measurement of distances becomes a metaphoric measurement of closeness, and the two rulers unfold to become a giant ice cream cone and a giant soda as the characters enjoy a quiet moment together. Unfortunately, their leisurely enjoyment is shattered as a recorded female voice suddenly announces “It is time for your daily workout. Start the activity” and begins to count down from twenty. Yet this new measurement, the countdown—despite being emblematic of rigidly enforced normativity—does not manage to separate the characters. Now sharing one ruler, the two characters fold it in time with the countdown, starting with the ruler folded to resemble the number nine—then folding it to form the number eight, then the number seven, and so on—until they put the ruler away at “zero” as the lights go down. Perhaps the Fates measure and cut the thread of our life, but in the meantime we control the ways we choose to measure our existence, whether through literal distance traveled or moments shared with friends.

The theme of object(ive) measurements of life fed directly into the next piece by Rough House Theater (the Chicago company that also produced the adaptation of Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading, presented as part of CIPTF), “Trurl’s Electronic Bard,” inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s work and starring a tensegrity sphere¹ to which a collapsible silver tube and a mask are added, creating a puppet brought to life not only by excellent puppeteering but also by a wonderful electronic sound design. The puppet gains a rod hand and recites poetry, has an existential crisis in which he is unsure if he’s achieved anything, and then tries to continue building and improving himself before being struck down and dismantled by a (flash)light. After the destructive light departs, another (flash)light rises from the stricken puppet and departs in a different direction—does the spirit of the puppet live on? How do we measure the spark of life? 

The question of how we measure the meaning of our existence was reiterated in Gabriel Chalfin-Piney’s piece “Matzah Soup,” in which the main characters are all made from (vacuum-packed) matzah with added facial features. Margaret and Bernie are “an aging couple in a rural town outside of London,” who worry over the course of the performance about whether their son will appreciate their farm (which seems to house a polyamorous kink dungeon community). At the end, Margaret and Bernie have aged into round, crunchy, non–vacuum-sealed puppets, and as they look at the stars together, Chalfin-Piney eats them. The edible nature of the puppets (and the use of instantly recognizable matzah) renders this piece hilarious, while also raising the question of identity. Are we defined by our materiality? How much do our bodies matter? The finale served as a far funnier parallel to the ending of Livsmedlet’s “Full Measures,” in which the countdown seemed to signal a finality that ended (rather than transmuted) the characters’ existence.

As the title implies, Sarah Nolen’s “Time’s Up” (a title reminiscent of the countdown at the end of “Full Measures”) also plays with audience expectations of what happens to characters when time runs out. As the audience stares at a tall toy-theater stage completely covered in a black curtain with a board on top, a gray and black masked-and-caped finger puppet pops over the top and looks around, slowly walking back and forth, its arms folded across its chest. Suddenly it opens its arms, revealing the Bat-Symbol! As Batman poses dramatically, we hear a ticking noise courtesy of Nolen’s vocal sound effects, and Robin suddenly appears holding a bomb (portrayed by a kitchen timer). The ticking stops as Robin gives Batman the bomb and runs for cover. Batman then shoves the bomb back at Robin and runs for cover. After shoving the bomb back and forth several times, they both push it to one end of the board and run to the other end together. Each fights to be under the other (and therefore protected from the bomb blast), but after a few top/bottom switches, the Dynamic Duo starts making out. 

Nolen seizes the grand camp tradition of Adam West and Burt Ward (thank you, 1960s television!) with both hands, as her finger puppets bring to life a history of Batman and Robin that was frequently far more text than subtext, even in the comics (as Batman author Grant Morrison has pointed out). Moe Meyer’s famous definition of camp as queer parody (1994)—a praxis whereby queer artists (re)present popular culture with a critical twist—perfectly encapsulates Nolen’s flawless performance. The heroic lovers are briefly interrupted when the “bomb” rings and they both freak out, but they quickly recover upon realizing that the object is not, in fact, a bomb. (Sometimes a timer is just a timer.) Batman gallantly pushes the timer off the edge of the stage and then slowly goes down on Robin, causing them both to disappear below the rooftop. Nolen’s pitch-perfect wordless puppetry, the extravagant reactions of Batman and Robin, the explicit homoeroticism (can finger puppets be graphic?), and the finger puppets themselves—that so wonderfully mimic (queer parody!) the wholesomeness of both the sixties TV show and the post–Comics Code Authority comics—all unite to create a performance that seems silly and yet critiques the ways in which popular culture depicts sex and sexuality. As a society, we measure both sex and sexuality with fear-inducing capital XXXs, treating them as a bomb ready to go off at any moment rather than wholesome aspects of humanity that will eventually “ring,” in spite of all attempts at suppression.

While Nolen’s performance utilized a puppetry style usually assumed to be for children’s theater in a piece decidedly not for children, Little Uprisings’s Tanya Nixon-Silberg (from Boston) performed her children’s theater piece, “Five Protesting Kids,” which was engaging and interactive even for adults. Explaining that she started with the concept of the Black Power fist, wondering how to utilize it in a puppet performance, Nixon-Silberg’s ingenious idea was to start with a cardboard hand. As she sang her song about five protesting kids, she folded down a finger every time a child stood up for an issue they believed in. At the end, she was left with the power fist and, in addition to the five protesting kids from the song, all children who work to promote equity and support Black Lives Matter. The performance clearly teaches children how to measure their participation in activism both literally (by counting) and figuratively through the realization that the more people there are who are willing to stand up and be counted, the more support they will find. The all-adult NBS audience joined in the chorus immediately after the first verse, demonstrating that the performance worked just as well with adults as with children—at least, when the adults are an enthusiastic Chicago theater audience.

The simple but inevitable passage of time was the subject of the next presentation, a short film Silvita y el Invierno by Coriolis Teatro de Objetos (from Montevideo, Uruguay). The piece stars Silvita, “an old woman who fights against the inevitable…arrival of winter” and who, despite being a hand-and-rod puppet, has more to her than meets the eye. At the beginning, she is sweeping while the sun is in the sky, but the sun is almost immediately covered by a cloud. She threatens the cloud with her broom and it moves, but whenever Silvita stops paying attention, the cloud moves back over the sun (and sometimes the sun moves behind the cloud). Finally, Silvita mounts her broom and takes off, chasing the cloud around the sky. The cloud not only evades her but multiplies, and eventually Silvita is back on the ground with her broom, shivering and wearing a woolen hat and scarf while the multiple clouds snow on her. The piece reminds us that as uncomfortable as certain times can be, we need to experience them. There can be no summer without winter; we measure years by the seasons. Even a witch cannot stop winter—nor presumably her own relentless aging.

The final performance of the night—a shadow-puppet piece by Theatre Nobody (of Chicago) and Kevin Michael Wesson—critiqued the ways we measure success. The piece is a selection from Where We Go Together or The Flashlight Play, Theatre Nobody’s touring show. The performance began in the dark with loud music and flashlights before settling into a shadow-puppet play about a bee whose friends tell her that her honey is so good that she should try to sell it. She tries to market her honey to a black bear, to fire ants, and to a butterfly, but none of them want to try it. Each time she cuts her prices for the next customer, eventually trying to give it away for free, but no one is willing to sample honey from an unfamiliar local supplier rather than a (recognizably corporate) name brand. In the end, Bee decides that her honey should remain a special treat for her friends, who appreciate both it and her. Given the apparent heavy-handedness of the message throughout the show as each animal refuses to try Bee’s local homemade honey because it’s not the major brand that they already know, I assumed that the ending would also contain a message. The revelation that friendship is better than money was not the anti-capitalist sentiment I was hoping for, given the narrative setup. Nor did this conclusion seem particularly satisfying for Bee—it seemed more of a surrender than a solution. Perhaps after the intricacies of “Full Measures” and “Trurl’s Electronic Bard,” the activism of “Five Protesting Kids,” the beautiful simplicity of Silvita y el Invierno, and the deceptive simplicity of the social critique in “Time’s Up,” my own ability to measure meaning was slightly off.

NBS is a brilliant evening of puppetry, thoughtfully curated and wonderfully hosted and always a blast to watch with an enthusiastic audience. During CIPTF, the performances frequently reach dizzying heights, in part (but certainly not exclusively) due to the participation of puppeteers who are also performing in mainstage productions. The diversity of style, technique, narrative, and artistic methodology are always among the top reasons to watch NBS—spectators are treated to the breadth of an entire theatrical season in the span of an hour and to performances that are frequently far more memorable than many long-form pieces. NBS shows remain available on YouTube (see links below), and I highly recommend that anyone who found anything of worth in this review go watch the performances. Even on a digital platform, without the immediacy of live theater or the support and enthusiasm of the audience, you can still gain an incredible appreciation for the artists discussed here.

Link to 1/20/23 performance

Link to 1/21/23 performance 

¹ A tensegrity sphere is a three-dimensional circular structure comprising separate bars, none of which touch each other, being held together instead only by the tensile force among them. 

Work Cited

Meyer, Moe. “Introduction: Reclaiming the Discourse of Camp.” The Politics and Poetics of Camp, edited by Moe Meyer, Routledge, 1994, pp. 1-19.

Puppets and Politics at Nasty, Brutish & Short:
January 27 – 28, 2023

An Essay by Skye Strauss

If you watched other editions of Nasty, Brutish & Short—inside or outside festival time—you would recognize the merry band of weirdos, puppeteered by Noah Ginex, who were providing the entertainment between acts. On the 28th, there was a time-travel skit about tacos that featured a clever cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” delivered by a Manitoban moose, alongside a few extended jokes that had carried over from the night before. If you knew what to expect, you could giggle at the bad puns, preemptively roll your eyes at google-eyed Grandpa Goulash’s crazy inventions, and even play along with the host—the fuzzy, orange Jameson Jarvis Ralphonso—by responding to his prompts. “How is that going to smell?” he asks the room, and a few voices reply, “Awful!” Some committed puppet aficionados were clearly in the house both nights—ready to listen and respond. While that was certainly played for laughs by Ginex, it also says a lot about a puppet cabaret’s capacity for cultivating an engaged and attentive community.

Calling Nasty, Brutish & Short a puppet cabaret makes a series of implicit promises, including variety, adult entertainment, and avant-garde art. For the festival crowd on January 27, Myra Su and Caitlin McLeod had curated an evening of “short-form experimental puppet theater” coproduced by Rough House Theater Company and Links Hall performance space, with funding from the Puppet Slam Network. Links Hall fits into the web of small storefront theaters spread throughout Chicago neighborhoods, far from the commercial theaters Downtown in the Loop. The nondescript exterior, across from an overpass, opens into a small bar and a black box where Nasty, Brutish & Short regularly takes place in front of a local crowd. The puppet cabarets during the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival had the special distinction of adding in more national and international artists and audience members who were in town for the festival. This puppet cabaret aimed to please that broad audience by presenting particularly varied work—offering some pieces that were pure entertainment alongside more ambitious and politically challenging fare. Through juxtaposition, cabaret performance fosters an audience prepared to read performances on more than one level and see puppetry as a vehicle for big ideas.

Of course, the skilled artists onstage during the festival presented multiple well-crafted pieces that offered the kind of entertainment value audiences automatically expect from puppet performances—including the black-lit tap-dancing puppet “Mr. Ritz,” who closed out the show on the 27th with a Fred Astaire–style number courtesy of Steven Widerman. That evening’s program also featured a knee-high marionette who was so detailed that his tiny, mobile mouth could sing along with the lyrics while he played the guitar. The puppet explained that he came here from Brazil—like his maker and puppeteer, Eduardo Felix of Pigmalião, who was the real singer here. For this evening’s performance, the marionette serenaded us with his rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” That was before he had a mild existential crisis while trying to exit upstage—the platform drop-off is harder to handle if you are shy of a few feet tall yourself. Given that Pigmalião Escultura que Mexe’s Macunaíma Gourmet explicitly celebrated the “urgency with which puppets can make political points,” this felt like a deliberate choice to make a more accessible offering for the cabaret crowd, one that might later draw them toward more complex fare.

Even a simple, joyful piece can further puppetry as an art form—in line with the festival’s wider mission—by encouraging more would-be puppeteers and continuing to cement the sense of community in the audience. Mark Blashford’s piece, introduced as the “Cheap Sheep Show” from Iceland, mixed wooden marionettes and detailed figurines with everyday objects. The carved farmer and sheep were enchanting—including one little lamb who was an aspiring painter, complete with mini beret and brush. They shared the stage with simpler effects, not least of which were their entrances and exits—for instance, emerging from the same box that “set the scene” when the lid was raised to display a red barn painted on its top, being “tucked into bed” under the hem of the puppeteer’s intarsia sweater, and even being unwrapped out of balls of yarn. Raw tufts of wool—an easy material for anyone to work with—also played a part. Loosely hand-rolled into balls and stuck to the puppeteer’s sweater, they were sheep in the same way that a plastic bag whipped through the air became the winter wind. Blashford proved that with the right sound, movement, and verbal cues anything can be a puppet—making it an exceedingly accessible art. He was also using his witty repartee to harness the same participatory energy that would feed Ginex’s jokes the next night. By the end, Blashford had the entire audience loudly “baa-ing” along on behalf of a whole field’s worth of tiny sheep in various physical forms.

To truly encourage risk-taking—to stay “experimental”—the cabaret had to make room for improvisation and imperfection amidst the otherwise polished offerings of both the cabaret and the wider festival. In “From the Archives of the Library of the Dreamless,” Dream Eaters Collective improvised their way through five scenarios collected from audience members before the show. Their satirical introduction, delivered in front of a logo for the imaginary iBaku Inc., read like a corporate form letter. It explained that employees are playing back dreams to facilitate the “untangling process” after these dreams were hacked (not unlike the bank account hacks and other personal data breaches that are currently in and out of the news). The team managed to stage a wild variety of content on overhead projectors using a combination of shadow puppets from previous performances and paper puppets handcrafted on the spot. The dreams included an awkward date with Jerry Seinfeld, a cockroach killing, the misadventures of a red balloon, a giant egg that cracked open to “pour out knowledge on the world,” and a cruise ship vacation staged with an amusingly anachronistic Viking longship. A receptive audience—willing to imagine along and celebrate the team’s effort—became key to the piece’s success despite its rough and ready presentation.

Other lighthearted pieces also took the invitation to slip commentary into otherwise innocuous performance. Jabberwocky Marionettes introduced us to a large-scale, multi-operator T-rex puppet. After being introduced by its flying friend the pterodactyl, this walking fossil contributed to the puppet slam by delivering some slam poetry about the Cretaceous period. It is safe to say that this locally made piece was overtly playing to its hometown audience. The T-Rex claimed to have come from Utah a little more than twenty years ago—so the audience knows, without being told, that we’re looking at a walking, talking version of Sue, the very real T-Rex fossil on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Like any long-term denizen of the city, this dinosaur marks informal time with things like: “I remember the concerts at Navy Pier” because “I’m a fossil”—a line that was good for a laugh. The political jab slipped in edgewise was a quick comment on the rudeness of humans with their love of plastics (and, one might add, fossil fuels). For an audience member prepared to pause and think between laughs, it is easy to shudder at the thought of what our layer of the fossil record will look like when it’s our turn to go.

There are, of course, downsides to city-dwelling, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the 28th, the evening opened with “Face Me” by Michelle Finston from New York. With its focus on the masked face and its intense loneliness—edged with sexual frustration—it is easy to imagine this piece being born in quarantine from the household objects on hand. Finston began with a mask that shrouded her own face in what looked like masking tape. By making a blank of herself, she leant out attention to the pair of pantyhose puppets on her hands. As the piece progressed, the puppets’ heavy petting knocked off their eyes, peeled away their masking tape heads, and started stretching and knotting their bodies into increasingly unlikely shapes. Eventually, Finston’s hands were bare, and she used them to pry off her own mask—violently whipping her head left, right, and forward before successfully freeing herself. In the final moments, she looked intently out into the audience as if pleading to be seen—valuably rehumanizing issues that had become abstracted and politicized.

Around such serious offerings, one piece played with teasing a deeper meaning knowing that, on the same night, the miscue would be good for a laugh. Introducing Naïve Theatre Liberec from the Czech Republic with the tagline “This piece is about life and death” certainly felt a little melodramatic given what came next. A tiny dachshund rushed onstage and barked excitedly, wagging nose to tail, at a bone floating midair. He jumped with all his might but could not reach it. A second, slightly larger dog entered and gave the smaller dog a leg up, but the bone floated higher. Dogs three through six followed the same pattern until there was quite a puppy pile onstage. It was the last and largest dog who broke the mold and his four-legged friends, too, when he tried to climb to the top of the pyramid instead of serving as the base. Voilà, death! However, there were two more twists. First, the last dog standing choked on the ill-gotten bone. Then, the team of puppeteers pulled out hotdogs to chow down on. By the time they started to choke, the audience was laughing loudly. At the end of the evening, there was no need for the departing audience to take everything so seriously.

Indeed, comedy offers its own kind of carnivalesque potential—especially if the “variety” aspect of cabaret can be used to justify a collision between clowning and puppetry. At the beginning of “This is Your Cupcake” by Vanessa Valliere, the lights come up slowly as a clown with a grotesque body roams the audience––stroking her bulging stomach. Having made her way up onto the stage, she cuts out the quiet introductory music and tries to start a dance party, but the music gets cut off mid-phrase. A man enters in a dress shirt and tie, armed with a bell and a buzzer, intent on ruining the fun. If the clown onstage uses an item correctly, she is rewarded with a “ding” from the bell. An incorrect alternative gets a laugh from the audience but a “buzz” from the bureaucrat. 

The puppet in this performance made its appearance following the cupcake of the title. The clown’s stomach started to roil, and an intestinal hand-puppet monster sprang out—an ugly-endearing creature with one eye and a springy tuft of hair who snuggled up to its clown mama. But every time the clown and her creature tried to eat the cupcake, she got a “buzz” until a chase ensued. As the clown and the straight man circled the stage, trying to take the seat of authority stationed at the bell, the bureaucrat lost the game of musical chairs and ended up in the box instead. Here was finally the reversal of power we in the audience were waiting for! I assumed that the clown, finally free to follow her impulses, would instantly inhale the cupcake. Surprisingly, her friend the little monster wanted to share, and everyone in the onstage trio got a few bites of cake. 

The piece was interesting juxtaposed with Finston’s “Face Me” on the same night. Feeling lonely? Try being stuck with someone bossy; you might be ready to be alone again. Stuffed pantyhose? Check, but now instead of hand puppets, we get the gnarly body of a Lecoq-style bouffon clown.¹ For all the normative, Pavlovian implications of the piece’s beginning, the end was distinctly hopeful about the power of connection and kindness.

The night before, on the 27th, other puppet performers had also played with their food. Felicia Cooper started her piece with a suitcase-turned-shadow-screen, dubbed the “personal theater of collective anxiety,” in order to introduce us to a particular kind of rage—the kind that “sticks to your ribs.” In a key transformative moment, the lights came up as she set aside her suitcase for a hand-puppet booth rigged from her floor-length skirt (en route, her crochet tights drew a few wolf-whistles). The little lady hand puppet who appeared was accompanied by a smiley spork and a pot, playing the cooking-show hostess. Her key ingredient? The audience’s angry screams, elicited by the puppeteer, who was clearly advocating for a little emotional release in a world of polite repression. Everyday objects that are alive also have a potentially sinister edge—as with Risa Lenore’s clown-driven scene “You Are What You Eat” in which an unsuspecting diner is attacked by the spider-like spaghetti monster who emerges, slurping and scowling, from their dinner bowl. The final effect, of the puppet-turned-mask (or its mask-like double?) successfully “taking over” its host’s head, was delightfully unsettling, as she slinked off to find another victim. Across all three pieces—the cupcake, the cooking show, and the spaghetti monster—puppetry gave the artists a unique ability to embody, in both amusing and disturbing ways, the troubled relationship between women, the kitchen, and food.

At a cabaret like this one, coming for the “fun” performances does not preclude being confronted with something much more complex. As the audience entered the theater on the 27th, they were greeted by a sepia-toned photo that played a central role in Sam Lewis’s “Praiseworthy,” featuring live accompaniment by Hunter Diamond. Lewis has been on a genealogical quest sparked by his friendship with a man whose family once enslaved his ancestors. His earliest findings were a photo of his great-great-grandfather, Phil McBride, and a bill of sale—for $650—to a Mr. George McBride. Then a Library of Congress search turned up an article from The Memphis Daily Appeal, a historical newspaper written for the white community, which on August 28, 1872, published an article titled “Praiseworthy” applauding Phil McBride for heroically preventing a train derailment. Using a wooden cranky, Lewis recounts how Phil McBride sent another man to signal the train, using a baby’s red petticoat, while he labored to remove a tree from the track. The cranky also described what might have unfolded without Phil McBride—the two paper scrolls, left and right of center, picking up speed as they rushed toward each other, causing agonized faces to give way to an explosion studded with the leaves of the fallen tree.

As Lewis talked us through his story, each piece of board back paper that displayed a facsimile of a historical document was lifted gently from its stand, their brightness glowing against the darkness of the stage. We were invited to attend, with reverence, to these small fragments that constitute a history and link past to present. “When you reach out to the ancestors,” Lewis said, “sometimes they reach back,” and it is in this story of heroism that he sees himself in his forefather—a man who acted to save “a train full of white folks,” who was applauded in the paper for the “feelings of humanity” that motivated him to avert a “serious disaster.” Lewis noted that the sentiments of the article are the stuff of Reconstruction, musing that a few years later the same paper would never call a “Negro” featured in its pages “intelligent and prompt,” however backhanded some of these compliments seem to a modern reader. As the performance progressed, Diamond’s percussion transitioned into a jazz saxophone solo that underscored Lewis’s echoing refrain: “Extra, extra, read all about it—praiseworthy!” As a final gesture, Lewis carefully restored the pages to their stand and placed the photo on top. He kissed his hand, pressed that kiss to the photo, and left the audience—now properly introduced—staring back at Phil McBride. Allowing this powerhouse piece to start the evening had the audience on alert to notice anything deep offered to them by subsequent performance, given the gravity of this highly personal and political offering.

The next night, Alice Wedoff’s “Red, White and Blue” was the evening’s most overtly political piece and one that, like the Dream Eaters Collective’s improvisations, took risks. The lyrics of her song and her physical movements presented the audience with troubling juxtapositions: soaring mountains and desert plains next to trash heaps and city streets with “blood on the pavement,” the raising of some voices and the stifling of others, and the promise of freedom in a nation rife with inequality. Though the piece started and ended with her looking up at the flag, in between she was engaged in a complex dance. As quickly as the lyrics changed, so did her orientation to the flag. The passive flag she was carefully cradling one moment actively bound or choked her the next. Burning a flag in protest has a kind of blunt finality, instead Wedoff seemed intent on continuing to question the flag, her relationship with it, and by extension, the nation it symbolizes. Thinking along with her would mean asking the audience to do the same.

There was palpable tension generated by the space between Wedoff’s intentions and the reality that, as a white woman, her positionality made it difficult for her to be centered as a solo performer while discussing nation and race. In Lewis’s contemplative performance about slavery and his family tree the night before, the audience got nuance where they might have expected more overt sadness and anger, and it made Wedoff’s emotion difficult to receive. Regardless, both stepped up to the challenge to make weighty experimental work for an audience well-versed enough to be difficult to please. Looking back over the whole and seeing multiple puppeteers engage the form’s political potential—whether in passing during the flow of an otherwise comedic act, through satire, or in more wholly serious, dramatic fare—must certainly be considered a positive for a festival that aims to elevate the art form, in part by continually educating its audiences. 

Continuing to further diversify the perspectives onstage also means empowering that audience to step up—in this fail-safe space—and make more puppetry of their own. During his last comedic improvisations on the night of January 27, Ralphonso (puppeteered by Ginex) used his platform as host to show off his own hand puppet “Abraham-ster Lincoln.” Ralphonso suggested that the audience members follow his example and make more puppets. Between the workshops offered by the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and the classes offered by Rough House Theater, in person and online, I hope there will be plenty of locals and visitors ready to keep the cabaret going until the next sold-out festival.

¹ Jacques Lecoq is a famous teacher of theatrical movement and acting—bouffon is one of multiple forms of clown and masked performance taught at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 20-21 and 27-28, 2023
Links Hall
3111 N. Western Ave

Extend your festival experience by hitting Chicago’s favorite late-night puppet cabaret, Nasty, Brutish & Short. This special festival edition, featuring the charming and furry host, Jameson, is home to raucous, raunchy, dark, sassy, sad and mostly hilarious puppet theater, highlighting more experimental work by out of towners as well as local favorites in four different nights of puppet revelry.


Finding his place, by Irene Hsiao in the Reader

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading