by Joan Dittmann, Post-Tribune
If you’ve ever used your hands to cast shadows of shapes on the wall, you’ve literally tried your hand at one of the world’s oldest forms of puppetry. The range of this storytelling art from shadow puppetry and its basic ancient form, to cultural traditions and cutting edge contemporary puppetry, for both youth and adult audiences by top puppeteers from around the world, will all be part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, from January 19 to 29.
Tickets are currently on sale for over 90 performances of over 20 different shows by artists from seven countries. The festival also includes a free family-friendly event, workshops, a symposium, an opportunity to see works in progress, and a curated intensive festival immersion experience for puppeteers and artists.
Other highlights for families include a marionette adaptation of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and “Plastique”, described as a plastic bag world where funny creatures appear, transform and show their true natures. Both of these shows are presented by Adventure Stage Chicago, a theater that “creates and tells heroic stories about young people in order to… inspire everyone to be a hero in their own lives”. Their works are designed specifically for teens and pre-teens.
Family-friendly performances with international flair include the award-winning Teatro dei Piedi with “Sonata for 4 Feet” a comedy and mime performance by puppeteers using their hands — and feet — to create characters, “Feathers of Fire” using shadow puppets as beautiful visuals to portray an epic Persian tale and “Conversations with Devi” using traditional Balinese shadow puppets to tell a tale from Hindu mythology.
Shadow puppetry is also used in two other family-friendly shows by innovative Chicago-based theater companies. Manual Cinema will perform “Magic City” based on the novel of the same name about a girl who moves into a new home and entertains herself by building a city using household objects. Manual Cinema’s productions are a joy for the senses, as is watching their artistic team stage their performances.
Manual Cinema also contributed to “Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth”, a visually compelling play in the festival and beyond at Lookingglass Theatre, about a loving storytelling couple who go into the stories to learn why the Big Bad Wolf died and their stories are changing. This play also uses several captivating puppets created by Blair Thomas, the festival’s founder and artistic director.
The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival’s shows aren’t just for children. If plastic bags, drawings moving on overhead projectors and feet as characters challenge the stereotype of what puppets are, then the other shows in this festival challenge the stereotype that puppet shows are for children by subject matter, humor or language which is more suitable for adults.
The performances targeted to adults include: “Narcissister LIVE” exploring gender, racial identity and sexuality in performances at the Cards Against Humanity Theater; “The White Woman” blending installation art with puppetry to explore how we can rediscover ourselves in solitude; “T(w)o Marias”, a work-in-progress where puppets and audiences are in a walk-through set exploring how loss changes our inner landscapes; “Diamond Dogs”, a deadly maze story set in an alien tower of the 26th century; and “Kick the Klown Presents a Kakafination of Kafka” with a clown presenting dark comedic pieces inspired by Franz Kafka.
International shows targeted to adults include: “Cendres” (Ashes), an emotional thriller based on a book about the true story of a Norwegian arsonist; “Chiflon Silence of the Coal”, a show from Chile using no words to tell about the dangers and human impacts of mining and the global economy; “7 Ways”, in which a South Korean artist combines dance, puppetry and visual theatrics to explore the boundary between the human body and the machine, and “Nasty, Brutish and Short: A Puppet Cabaret”.
Organizers of the festival say that Chicago is a fitting place to hold this festival, not only because the city boasts unique and award-winning companies engaged in puppetry, but also because the term “puppeteer” was coined in Chicago in the early 1900s by Ellen von Volkenburg, a theater director in Chicago’s infamous Fine Arts Building who was looking for a way to credit actors manipulating marionettes in a Shakespeare production.
The festival will offer the Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium, an event allowing practicing festival artists to meet with scholars “to consider the intersection of puppetry with other disciplines and ideas”. There is also a workshop on using found objects as dramatic tools.
The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival will also offer a free family-friendly workshop and performance by the Jabberwocky Marionettes at 11 a.m. on Friday, January 20 as part of the Juicebox series for young children and their families at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Street.
A complete festival schedule, short video highlights of many of these shows plus additional show information and links to purchase tickets can be found on the festival website, www.chicagopuppetfest.org.
Joan Dittmann is a freelance columnist for the Post-Tribune.