A terrifying whale, a delicate marionette made of ice and a collection of intricate figurines that travel across the terrain of human bodies were several of the sights on offer during the first week of the 12-day Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. The fifth edition of the festival — the largest of its kind in North America — presents performances by artists from 10 countries, as well as workshops, symposia and exhibitions at venues across Chicago through Jan. 29.
Belying the common perception that puppet shows are just for kids, the festival showcases puppetry as a sophisticated art form that generates boundary-pushing work and wholly unexpected experiences for theatergoers. That being said, there are plenty of family-friendly productions in this year’s lineup, including shows at Chicago Children’s Theatre and a free neighborhood tour.
In the recently renovated Studebaker Theater at the Fine Arts Building, a haunting production of “Moby Dick” by the French Norwegian company Plexus Polaire opened the festival. Artistic director Yngvild Aspeli’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel evokes the mystery of the seas and the megalomania of Captain Ahab through large-scale puppets, live music and video projections.
On a skeletal set modeled after the ribs of a ship — or those of a whale — seven actors and puppeteers perform with puppets that include crew members who smoke and sing in their hammocks, an oversized Ahab marionette who rages against his elusive enemy, and the grand finale: the giant white whale himself. A trio of onstage musicians provides accompaniment that ranges from rousing sea shanties and otherworldly whale sounds to the frenzied cacophony of the hunts.
In one scene that embodies both the elegance and violence of this production, small-scale whale puppets — the biggest perhaps 4 feet long — swim together in a mesmerizing, dance-like sequence, which is suddenly disturbed by a shout of “Thar she blows!” Tiny boats issue from a miniature ship, and soon the sailors harpoon an adult whale. The brutal techniques of whaling — stripping one’s prey to extract its precious oil before discarding the carcass — are depicted by unraveling the puppet’s skin and revealing its red innards. A baby whale looks on and mourns its parent, uttering pitiful cries. The scene highlights the outsized level of pain that man inflicts on these magnificent animals; indeed, Moby Dick’s bloodlust feels justified when he arrives with a flash of ghostly flesh and razor-sharp teeth.
Three days after the sold-out opening night of “Moby Dick,” I caught the free neighborhood tour of “My Night in the Planetarium,” an adaptation of the children’s book by Innosanto Nagara. Written and performed by Tanya Nixon-Silberg — founder of the racial justice-focused organization Little Uprisings — the play opens with a brief history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia before introducing Nagara as a child growing up in 1970s Jakarta.
With the aid of a large pop-up book, hand puppets and a voice-over by Nagara, Nixon-Silberg explores the role of art in grassroots resistance to an oppressive dictatorship. The performance I attended was at a pop-up space tucked into a corner of Navy Pier next to Ben & Jerry’s, where Nixon-Silberg had to compete with the hubbub of foot traffic and a noisy HVAC system. Nevertheless, her interactive performance successfully engaged the young audience members, including one who shouted, “Girl power!” in response to an open-ended prompt.
Next up in my three-show Saturday, I headed to the Chopin Theatre for a double bill of productions from Finland and France, respectively: “Invisible Lands” and “Anywhere.” Starring Livsmedlet Theater’s Ishmael Falke (puppeteer and director) and Sandrina Lindgren (choreographer and dancer), “Invisible Lands” transforms the performers’ bodies into the physical terrain on which refugees — represented by miniature figurines — travel after leaving home. A shoulder coated in sand becomes a desert, upraised knees a mountain range and a belly, painted blue, the ocean.
Falke and Lindgren soberly bear witness to these treacherous journeys as they handle the figurines, and occasionally the performers themselves stand in for refugees. In one harrowing scene, they methodically fill two bowls with water and salt, then plunge their faces underwater for an agonizingly long time. When they come up together, gasping for air, it’s a visceral reminder of the many refugees who have been lost at sea.
The vulnerability of the human body serves as a throughline between “Invisible Lands” and “Anywhere,” a production staged by France’s Théâtre de L’Entrouvert and performed by Chicago puppeteers Mark Blashford and Ashwaty Chennat. Based on Henry Bauchau’s novel “Oedipus on the Road,” the play depicts the travels of the mythical king of Thebes when he goes into exile after discovering that he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.
Here, Oedipus is a marionette made of ice — a fragile figure small enough for his loyal daughter, Antigone (Chennat), to carry in her arms. As they creep across a stage slick with ice and rain, Oedipus gradually melts while Antigone desperately tries to hold on to him. Unlike its ephemeral protagonist, this melancholy production will live on after its Chicago premiere; the festival plans to bring “Anywhere” on a national tour with its U.S.-based ensemble.
To wrap up the weekend, I saw the opening performance of “Grand Panorama” at the Harold Washington Library’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium. Designed and directed by New York-based artist Theodora Skipitares, the show draws on the lectures and writings of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, who both believed in the power of photography to convey the humanity of its subjects and the breadth of the African American experience.
Skipitares employs a range of techniques including oversized puppets, shadow puppetry and, of course, panorama to explore the early days of photography and what the medium meant to Douglass — the most photographed American of the 19th century — and to Du Bois, who compiled and exhibited around 400 photos of African Americans and displayed them at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Jumping ahead in time, the final scene addresses the state of 21st century facial recognition technology and the ways in which this ostensibly objective tool actually depends on the white-centric data that informs it.
Most of the festival’s productions run for only a few days, so it won’t be possible to replicate the lineup that I attended. However, there are still many promising shows to catch in the final week, including a South African version of “Hamlet,” a Canadian deconstruction of “Macbeth,” and an adaptation of the popular Brazilian novel “Macunaíma.” (The festival finale, a production of “Frankenstein” by acclaimed Chicago-based company Manual Cinema, is now sold out.) In addition, a pop-up Puppet Hub is open daily at the Fine Arts Building, with exhibits that include puppets, photography, models and sets.
Puppetry is a niche genre that even the most avid theatergoer may be unfamiliar with, and the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival presents an excellent opportunity to sample a vast range of artistry from around the world. Fortunately, the festival has moved to an annual schedule beginning this year, so Chicagoans won’t have to wait too long for it to come around again. In the meantime, get thee to a puppet show before the 2023 festival closes.
The 5th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival runs through Jan. 29 at various venues across Chicago. Visit ChicagoPuppetFest.org for schedules and tickets.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.