FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: The Gottabees

The Gottabees: Squirrel Stole My Underpants

January 19-22, 2023

Chicago Children’s Theatre

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

Citation Winner Badge — UNIMA-USA
Winner of the UNIMA Citation of Excellence

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Squirrel Stole My Underpants Is a Chaplinesque Caper for Children

An Essay by Jesse Njus

The Gottabee’s Squirrel Stole My Underpants is advertised for ages three and up, and although it’s a cliché, anyone ages 3 to 103 will unquestionably enjoy this show. As with the best shows that are ostensibly for children, the performance contains numerous elements to delight kids, while engaging adults in narrative possibilities not yet perceptible to elementary school audiences. The entire cast of Squirrel comprises performer/puppeteer Bonnie Duncan and musicians Brendan Burns and Tony Leva. While the piece contains no words, the energetic silent-movie–style storytelling—directed by Dan Milstein, with an excellent soundtrack played live by Burns and Leva—elevates Duncan’s superlative object performance into a brilliantly liminal space where the stories we tell ourselves as children can come true. The iconic underpants carry us through the story, serving as both a narrative and visual focal point. As a strikingly pink puppeted object, these underpants are more than a mere thing, and we follow their journey almost as gleefully as we follow Duncan’s attempts to retrieve them.

Much of the brilliance of Squirrel lies in its wordlessness, and Duncan earns any comparisons that she may receive to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Her expressions and gestures are as clear as in the best silent films, and by following Keaton’s dictate that a good performance removes as many title cards as possible, this nonverbal show (there is a solitary “Lost” sign) rates among the best. Duncan is simultaneously the puppeteer of the titular thieving Squirrel and the human actor portraying the young girl, Sylvie, whose underpants are stolen, thus forcing her to go on a lengthy odyssey to get them back. The Squirrel himself predominately appears as a red hand puppet who wears a bowler hat (a ridiculous bit of fun that will instantly make the Squirrel appear a bit Chaplinesque to adults), while Duncan’s Sylvie exudes confidence, charm, and bravery, as well as the occasional momentary sadness at a loss or a setback in the face of the many obstacles thrown at her. While the Squirrel is our mischievous, but highly engaging and likeable, antagonist, Duncan as Sylvie embodies an entertainingly exuberant but also identifiably relatable hero.

Sylvie begins the play by hanging her laundry out to dry. The clothesline and laundry baskets continue to serve as the main sources of performing objects throughout the show, with the primary exception of the titular Squirrel. The Squirrel first appears as a hand puppet, popping up behind the washing line after Sylvie has hung up her laundry and immediately spotting her amazingly pink underpants. Sylvie herself introduced the underpants to us lovingly as she hung them up to dry, and the pink causes the underpants to stand out while emphasizing their importance—of course such pink (bright pink!) underpants would be special. No wonder the Squirrel notices them—they are huge and pink! The Squirrel’s immediate attraction to the underpants makes complete sense, and unfortunately, he reacts to that feeling by stealing them. Thus begins a chase that lasts for the majority of the play, as the Squirrel finds ever more inventive ways to evade Sylvie.

Duncan’s ability to manipulate a hand puppet as though it’s separate from herself is not the only piece of performative brilliance—there are several changes in scale throughout the chase, and a tiny stuffed Squirrel (still red with a bowler hat) is chased at one point by a doll version of Sylvie. The main set remains the clothesline, covered in clothes and thus serving simultaneously as a curtain, while the laundry bags provide endless props, puppets, and opportunities for metamorphosis, including the transformation of one laundry bag into a boat for a journey across the water as the Squirrel hilariously sails away in a small boat ahead of Sylvie.

Underneath the joyous nonverbal performance of Duncan (and the Squirrel) there lies a lovely narrative about the importance certain objects hold in our lives and the lengths to which we will go in order to keep them or reclaim them. The play also engages with the questions of what it means to grow up and how we learn to become independent. The Squirrel is a nemesis, a frenemy, and finally a friend—everyone wants to have a meaningful connection with someone. At the beginning of the play, both Sylvie and the Squirrel have a meaningful attachment to the underpants. Sylvie loves them because they are unique, and the Squirrel—who sees them hanging on the laundry line—loves them immediately for the same reason. What begins as a tug-of-war (literally and figuratively) over the underpants slowly evolves into a very different journey, one that unites Sylvie and the Squirrel over their shared love of the underpants. 

In the end, the underpants themselves are not the primary objective for either character. While Sylvie still loves her underpants (and the Squirrel is still eying them in a way that might raise suspicions at the end of the play), a real bond was established during the chase. Sylvie and the Squirrel have actually connected with each other, and the Squirrel’s final moments of the show are less an attempt simply to steal the underpants again and more a desire to relive the wonderful new relationship that was just created—a camaraderie forged in a chase that the Squirrel might be interested in revisiting (if only for Burns’s and Leva’s wonderful music that accompanied it). Squirrel reminds us that the joy of connection can be found in new and unexpected ways as we grow up, as long as we are willing—and brave enough—to go on the journey.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 19-22, 2023
Chicago Children’s Theatre
100 S. Racine Ave.

In this poignantly silly adventure tale for families, Sylvie is sent to the backyard to hang up the laundry. The moment her back is turned, a mischievous squirrel steals her favorite piece of clothing and runs off. When Sylvie gives chase, an entire world emerges from her laundry basket, and curious characters show her the way through mysterious lands.

This show received a special citation from: UNIMA.

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Past Performances and Further Reading