A terrifying whale, a fragile marionette fabricated from ice and a set of intricate collectible figurines that journey throughout the terrain of human our bodies had been a number of of the sights on supply throughout the first week of the 12-day Chicago Worldwide Puppet Theater Competition. The fifth version of the pageant — the biggest of its variety in North America — presents performances by artists from 10 nations, in addition to workshops, symposia and exhibitions at venues throughout Chicago by means of Jan. 29.
Belying the widespread notion that puppet reveals are only for youngsters, the pageant showcases puppetry as a complicated artwork kind that generates boundary-pushing work and wholly sudden experiences for theatergoers. That being mentioned, there are many family-friendly productions on this yr’s lineup, together with reveals at Chicago Youngsters’s Theatre and a free neighborhood tour.
Within the lately renovated Studebaker Theater on the Fantastic Arts Constructing, a haunting manufacturing of “Moby Dick” by the French Norwegian firm Plexus Polaire opened the pageant. Inventive director Yngvild Aspeli’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel evokes the thriller of the seas and the megalomania of Captain Ahab by means of large-scale puppets, dwell music and video projections.
On a skeletal set modeled after the ribs of a ship — or these of a whale — seven actors and puppeteers carry out with puppets that embody crew members who smoke and sing of their hammocks, an outsized Ahab marionette who rages towards his elusive enemy, and the grand finale: the large white whale himself. A trio of onstage musicians offers accompaniment that ranges from rousing sea shanties and otherworldly whale sounds to the frenzied cacophony of the hunts.
In a single scene that embodies each the magnificence and violence of this manufacturing, small-scale whale puppets — the largest maybe 4 ft lengthy — swim collectively in a mesmerizing, dance-like sequence, which is all of a sudden disturbed by a shout of “Thar she blows!” Tiny boats difficulty from a miniature ship, and shortly the sailors harpoon an grownup whale. The brutal methods of whaling — stripping one’s prey to extract its treasured oil earlier than discarding the carcass — are depicted by unraveling the puppet’s pores and skin and revealing its crimson innards. A child whale seems on and mourns its dad or mum, uttering pitiful cries. The scene highlights the outsized degree of ache that man inflicts on these magnificent animals; certainly, Moby Dick’s bloodlust feels justified when he arrives with a flash of ghostly flesh and razor-sharp tooth.
Three days after the sold-out opening evening of “Moby Dick,” I caught the free neighborhood tour of “My Evening within the Planetarium,” an adaptation of the kids’s e book by Innosanto Nagara. Written and carried out by Tanya Nixon-Silberg — founding father of the racial justice-focused group Little Uprisings — the play opens with a quick historical past of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia earlier than introducing Nagara as a baby rising up in Seventies Jakarta.
With the help of a big pop-up e book, hand puppets and a voice-over by Nagara, Nixon-Silberg explores the function of artwork in grassroots resistance to an oppressive dictatorship. The efficiency I attended was at a pop-up house tucked right into a nook of Navy Pier subsequent to Ben & Jerry’s, the place Nixon-Silberg needed to compete with the hubbub of foot site visitors and a loud HVAC system. Nonetheless, her interactive efficiency efficiently engaged the younger viewers members, together with one who shouted, “Woman energy!” in response to an open-ended immediate.
Subsequent up in my three-show Saturday, I headed to the Chopin Theatre for a double invoice of productions from Finland and France, respectively: “Invisible Lands” and “Wherever.” Starring Livsmedlet Theater’s Ishmael Falke (puppeteer and director) and Sandrina Lindgren (choreographer and dancer), “Invisible Lands” transforms the performers’ our bodies into the bodily terrain on which refugees — represented by miniature collectible figurines — journey after leaving house. A shoulder coated in sand turns into a desert, upraised knees a mountain vary and a stomach, painted blue, the ocean.
Falke and Lindgren soberly bear witness to those treacherous journeys as they deal with the collectible figurines, and infrequently the performers themselves stand in for refugees. In a single harrowing scene, they methodically fill two bowls with water and salt, then plunge their faces underwater for an agonizingly very long time. After they come up collectively, gasping for air, it’s a visceral reminder of the various refugees who’ve been misplaced at sea.
The vulnerability of the human physique serves as a throughline between “Invisible Lands” and “Wherever,” a manufacturing staged by France’s Théâtre de L’Entrouvert and carried out by Chicago puppeteers Mark Blashford and Ashwaty Chennat. Based mostly on Henry Bauchau’s novel “Oedipus on the Street,” the play depicts the travels of the legendary king of Thebes when he goes into exile after discovering that he unwittingly killed his father and married his mom.
Right here, Oedipus is a marionette fabricated from ice — a fragile determine sufficiently small for his loyal daughter, Antigone (Chennat), to hold in her arms. As they creep throughout a stage slick with ice and rain, Oedipus regularly melts whereas Antigone desperately tries to carry on to him. Not like its ephemeral protagonist, this melancholy manufacturing will dwell on after its Chicago premiere; the pageant plans to carry “Wherever” on a nationwide tour with its U.S.-based ensemble.
To wrap up the weekend, I noticed the opening efficiency of “Grand Panorama” on the Harold Washington Library’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium. Designed and directed by New York-based artist Theodora Skipitares, the present attracts on the lectures and writings of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, who each believed within the energy of images to convey the humanity of its topics and the breadth of the African American expertise.
Skipitares employs a spread of methods together with outsized puppets, shadow puppetry and, after all, panorama to discover the early days of images and what the medium meant to Douglass — essentially the most photographed American of the nineteenth century — and to Du Bois, who compiled and exhibited round 400 photographs of African Individuals and displayed them on the 1900 Paris Exposition. Leaping forward in time, the ultimate scene addresses the state of twenty first century facial recognition expertise and the methods through which this ostensibly goal instrument truly is dependent upon the white-centric information that informs it.
A lot of the pageant’s productions run for just a few days, so it received’t be attainable to duplicate the lineup that I attended. Nonetheless, there are nonetheless many promising reveals to catch within the ultimate week, together with a South African model of “Hamlet,” a Canadian deconstruction of “Macbeth,” and an adaptation of the favored Brazilian novel “Macunaíma.” (The pageant finale, a manufacturing of “Frankenstein” by acclaimed Chicago-based firm Guide Cinema, is now offered out.) As well as, a pop-up Puppet Hub is open every day on the Fantastic Arts Constructing, with displays that embody puppets, images, fashions and units.
Puppetry is a distinct segment style that even essentially the most avid theatergoer could also be unfamiliar with, and the Chicago Worldwide Puppet Theater Competition presents a superb alternative to pattern an enormous vary of artistry from around the globe. Thankfully, the pageant has moved to an annual schedule starting this yr, so Chicagoans received’t have to attend too lengthy for it to come back round once more. Within the meantime, get thee to a puppet present earlier than the 2023 pageant closes.
The fifth Chicago Worldwide Puppet Theater Competition runs by means of Jan. 29 at numerous venues throughout Chicago. Go to ChicagoPuppetFest.org for schedules and tickets.
Emily McClanathan is a contract critic.