Join us for the next Festival: January 15-26, 2025

by Tony Adler

Little-known fact: Modern American puppetry was born in Chicago, along with the very word “puppeteer.” According to several sources (including a learned 2010 piece for Huffington Post by Reader contributor Robert Loerzel), it was the astonishing Ellen Van Volkenburg who first turned European marionettes to New World uses while performing and teaching at the Chicago Little Theatre during the 1910s. Blair Thomas has been doing his best to keep our town worthy of Van Volkenburg’s genius. A puppeteer in his own right, he cofounded Redmoon Theater before starting Blair Thomas & Co. and has been a prime mover in various citywide celebrations of the form. Now he’s artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which is set to bring dozens of human artists and their homunculi to multiple sites around Chicago for 11 days starting Wednesday, January 14. The surest of the festival’s sure things is The Table by Blind Summit (Wed 1/14-Sun 1/25, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, $35). The London-based company first brought this richly digressive talk, delivered by a mad old gent with a cardboard head, to Chicago Shakespeare in 2013; that they’re returning with it now (and offering a work in progress to boot) is great news. The other must-sees are homegrown. One of them is Mementos Mori (Thu 1/15-Sun 1/18, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, $28), a look at “death and technology” by Manual Cinema, who combine live actors, shadow puppets, video, and original music to create dreamlike fables. Another: Drunken Half-Angel (Tue 1/20 and Fri 1/23, 7:30 PM, Links Hall at Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $10-$15), by the much too rarely seen master of exquisitely sculpted objects and emotions, Michael Montenegro. Blair Thomas himself is represented by an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant (Fri 1/23-Sun 1/25, Chicago Children’s Theatre, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, $28-$38), created in cahoots with musician Michael Smith. And though I’ve never seen Joe Mazza myself, it’s good enough for me that Reader critic Justin Hayford has written admiringly of him. Mazza will be on the bill for two days (Wed 1/21-Thu 1/22, 7:30 PM, $10-$15) at the tail end of the puppet-cabaret series “Nasty, Brutish & Short,” cocurated by Taylor Bibat and Mike Oleon (Sat 1/17-Sat 1/24, Links Hall at Constellation, series pass $30). Beyond all that, it should be interesting to rummage among works by the likes of French “electroacoustic musician” Laurent Bigot (Le Petit Cirque, Sat 1/17-Sun 1/18, Vittum Theatre, 1012 N. Noble, $20), Belgian performance artist Nick Steur (Freeze, Wed 1/14-Sun 1/25, Chicago Shakespeare, $20),* England’s Stan’s Cafe (The Cardinals, Thu 1/22-Sat 1/24, 7:30 PM, MCA, $28), and many others. There are also workshops, a symposium, cool-sounding exhibits at the Art Institute and the Field Museum, and a late-night International Puppet Slam for “riskier” work (Sat 1/24, 10:30 PM, $8-$10).

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