I asked my husband to attend a puppet show at Theater Zarko, a couple of years ago. He’s pretty good about trying new things but was hesitant to go to the show. He didn’t want to spend a Friday night doing what he thought was a kid thing without the kids. He came around when I told that there would be a live quartet playing at the performance.
The production we saw was Half the Man and Falling Girl that Friday evening at a small venue in Evanston. Not only was my hubby pleasantly surprised he really enjoyed the show. The music was lovely, the puppets beautiful and the sets were exquisite. This is the first time we’d seen a puppet show with the puppeteers in plain sight. They were so adept at bringing the puppets to life that we never noticed them.
Why did I invite him to a puppet show? I was taking Performance and Puppetry at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time with Blair Thomas, a Chicago-based puppeteer. My class was required to go see the production. Although my puppet classes have since ended, my love of Puppet Theater has not. I was excited to learn that Blair has a new show out now, The Vinegar Works, based on Edward Gorey’s three books of moral instruction, at the Loyola University Museum of Art. It is running on Saturdays from now until June 15th. It is appropriate for all ages.
If you were fortunate enough to see The Houdini Box at the Mercury Theater a couple of years ago, you’d know that was a collaboration between the author Brian Selznik and Blair Thomas. The skillful mix of puppets and people was magical. The almost miniature stage was enchanting. It will be a treat to see The Vinegar Works.
Blair Thomas also does one-man shows, with him playing several characters, as well as being a one-man band, as in his production of Hard-Hearted Heart. His sets are awesome and his stories are thought provoking. He is a jack-of-all-trades, musical, able to build stuff and make puppets. He can juggle all of the aspects of his productions. He has been a puppeteer for over twenty-five years. I once asked him if he would ever have another career. He looked at me aghast and asked, “What else could I do?” Nothing, apparently, and lucky for us!
When you ask most people about puppetry they think Punch and Judy, Kukla Fran and Ollie or Sesame Street. They think kids’ entertainment. Some may be familiar with the hit satire, Avenue Q, which pokes fun at Sesame Street. Others may have seen War Horse, the spectacular Broadway show based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. But most people don’t think sophisticated entertainment. If they did, I think Puppet Theater would be able to command a higher ticket price.
Why is puppetry so enthralling? I’m not exactly sure. It could be that you have an inanimate object being brought to life by a person. Maybe it’s because the puppets are often small and the shows take place in miniature theaters. Perhaps it’s because whether or not the puppet is realistic or fantastic, we can always relate to it because of the human controlling it. A really good puppeteer can bring any puppet to life.
As for the puppets themselves, it is amazing how quickly you suspend your disbelief that the puppet is real once the show starts. Even in some shows where there are several visible puppeteers working one puppet, as in War Horse, you believe that you are watching a live horse.
My husband and I seek out puppet shows wherever we can find them. Sadly for the puppet world but happily for us, the tickets are usually dirt-cheap. I assume that is because it is a marginalized art. We have seen Blair’s Hard-Hearted Heart and Theater Zarko’s, He Who. You cannot go wrong with Theater Zarko, the shows are elegant and the music is beautiful. We’ve also seen Von Orthal Puppet’s production of Berwyn Ave. If they ever revive that production, go see it, especially if you grew up in the 70s. We’ve watched Team America, at the urging of my oldest son. It is a full length, amazingly done, hilarious and very naughty movie made with puppets. Do not let your kids watch it! If you want to take the kids, you should definitely go to a show at the Red Moon Theater. It is a fun place for the entire family! A little perk about puppet theater: they always let you up on stage after the show to see the puppets and talk to the puppeteers!