by Anne Spiselman
Puppets have been commandeering Chicago stages, and they’re not just for kids. Recent adult puppetry has included a demonic hand puppet possessing the arm of a confused adolescent, as well as Punch, Judy and their cohorts duking it out with clubs and other weapons. Winter brings the world premiere of Doug Hara’s “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth” at Lookingglass Theatre, with puppetry to tell the story of fairy tales gone awry, and New York’s PigPen Theatre in “The Hunter and the Bear,” a ghostly parable told with shadow puppetry at Writers Theatre.
Opera and ballet also are getting into the act, with a 20-foot-long dragon puppet in the new production of “The Magic Flute” at Lyric Opera and special effects such as roving waves and mischievous rats by celebrated puppeteer Basil Twist in Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker.”
The second biennial Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival Jan. 19 to 29 promises to be even bigger than the first in 2015, which drew more than 14,000 people to 83 events presented by 50 artists at locations all over town. Some are returning, joined by local, national and international companies and individuals ranging from Montreal’s Theatre Puzzle to Santiago, Chile’s Silencio Blanco.
“Chicago is fertile ground for the nation’s largest puppet theater fest,” says Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director. “It has a robust audience that’s open to all types of theater performances, and young artists can get the support they need to work, develop and grow here.”
While puppetry prospered between the world wars and in the 1950s, Thomas says the current revival began nationally in the late 1970s and picked up steam in the 1990s, especially with Julie Taymor’s 1997 “The Lion King.” He calls it a “peripheral art form” because it’s a “replica of the real world” and points out that it tends to parody human behavior, like the Muppets, or be profound, like the majestic creatures in the stage version of “War Horse.”
“Puppetry is different from other performing arts languages because it is based around the world of objects,” he says. “It makes things that aren’t alive, and that we know aren’t alive, appear to be alive. That’s the magic of it.”