by TED C. FISHMAN
Breath. Seeing a creature inhale and exhale can be a first clue that we are beholding a living being. Puppeteers work hard to master breathing, both their own and the movement of breath that animates—“gives breath to”—their creations. Creating the illusion of breath is probably as old as the first puppet; ancient forms still in practice, such as Japanese bunraku or Javanese wayang, ritualize it. Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio (1881), understood what breath means to a puppet and so do his readers. Pinocchio’s first act is on the breath, he laughs at Geppetto. In the original version of the story, the finality of the naughty fella’s end, by hanging, comes when Pinocchio can no longer gasp for air. Collodi knew to save that gag for last.
The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival went on its COVID hiatus around two years ago. It was hardly a deep freeze, though. The festival moved into roomy digs in downtown’s Fine Arts Building giving room for classes, rehearsals, a workshop for making stuff and offices for a growing administrative staff that will handle what is planned to be an annual festival and for nurturing collaborations with performers of all kinds, local and away. Still, what has been the largest puppet theater festival in the country–drawing 14,000 people to its shows and events—missed an outing. It’s sprung back and will be filling stages around the city from January 20 to 30, presenting shows from a wide variety of companies, including some of the most celebrated puppet artists in the country, working in a variety of styles.
Blair Thomas, the festival’s founder (and co-founder of the marvelous, now-belated Redmoon Theater), may have the broadest connections among the nation’s puppet-theater artists. Thomas promises that this year’s fest brings in the very best from all over the United States. Nearly all of the works are new to Chicago. Travel restrictions forced the festival to exclude foreign companies this round. There’s lots of choice, nonetheless. As in the past, some shows will be droll, others buffo, some will be introspective and others more overtly polemical. Few will come anywhere near children’s theater, though young audiences may find the festival transporting all the same. Anyone who loves puppetry or innovative theater is advised to comb the festival’s website and grab tickets for anything that beckons. The site features short clips from several companies. All the shows are very short runs, and many of the shows may sell out in advance.
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