If you think of puppetry as simply an intimate form of theater in which several hand puppets or a group of string-manipulated puppets perform on a small box-like stage, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival it will undoubtedly change your conception.
Because this large-scale festival not only celebrates an ancient art form and pays homage to the past, it also serves as a fascinating showcase of all that is new.
The many live productions and a host of other events and exhibitions that make up this year’s festival, which runs through January 29 at a variety of venues across the city, opened last Wednesday with a sold out hall at the beautiful Studebaker Theater of The Palace of Fine Arts. And he did it with a particularly monumental, intensely dramatic and elaborate multimedia version of “Moby Dick”, Herman Melville’s classic about Ahab, the aging sea captain totally obsessed with the idea to go back to sea to kill the great white whale that left him with one leg amputated.
Also aboard that voyage is Ishmael, a younger man who serves as the story’s narrator, and who confesses that he boarded the whaler as a form of escape from his deep disillusionment with life. He is joined by Starbuck, the ship’s serious first mate and a rather disorganized crew.
This extraordinary large-scale play, created by director Yngvild Aspeli and her Norwegian/French theater company, Plexus Polaire, involves seven actors, 50 puppets (many life-size or larger), stage design by Elisabeth Holager Lund, a trio of musicians on stage and the use of complex video projections (designed by David Lejard-Ruffet) that evoke a sense of the ocean.
There is continuous movement created by both the storytelling and the manipulation of the highly expressive life-size puppets. And the arrival and brutal dissection of the reviled whale is powerfully evoked.
What was particularly intriguing about this production was how the actors and puppeteers so convincingly captured the existential drama driving Melville’s main characters.
Blair Thomas, the artistic director of this festival which he founded in 2015 (after a long history as a producer and creator of shows with his former collaborator, Frank Maugeri, artistic director of Cabinet of Curiosity) is not making plans recently.
If you attend some of the other shows staged at the Palace of Fine Arts, 410 S. Michigan Ave., be sure to visit the Puppet Hub exhibits that have been staged in several rooms. They present “American Puppet Theater Today: The Photography of Richard Termine”; ‘The Art of Basil Twist’ (the puppet artist who contributed to the Joffrey Ballet’s irresistible production of ‘The Nutcracker’) and ‘Motel’, a small scale ‘static puppet show’.
For the full schedule of over 100 different productions and events in 11 different venues visit: www.chicagopuppetfest.org.
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