Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival Review - Not Your Elementary Marionettes

Mementos Mori's expansive landscapes (photo by Marc Perlish)

Why puppets? Why a whole festival dedicated to those things? Won’t it just be for kids? Isn’t that kind of dumb? All of the former questions were asked of me, even by fellow theatre artists, which in turn made me wonder: when did puppetry become a thing to mock? To roll one’s eyes at? The puppeteer must give life to the lifeless, from materials made of cardboard or paper or shadows - puppetry is a hugely demanding craft! The purpose of this festival was to “establish Chicago as a cultural center for for puppetry” and “cultivate the imagination through the traditions and contemporary practices of the art of puppetry” - so my questions for the festival became: does the company animate and perform the puppets with humanity? How does this performance add something new to the discipline? With these in mind, I attended three of the festival’s 12-day run of performances: Manual Cinema’s Mementos Mori, artist Daniel Barrow’s The Thief of Mirrors, and British company Blind Summit’s The Table.

Moses, the bunraku puppet (photo by Lorna Palmer)

I believe Mementos Mori spoiled me for the remainder of the festival - they encompassed the festival’s entire aim. Manual Cinema blends old and new techniques of live and manual shadow puppetry, both illuminated by out-dated overhead projectors and pre-recorded film, and scored by live and pre-recorded music; the performance was a gorgeous amalgamation of so many old and new disciplines, half of the fun was watching the precisely choreographed and detail oriented company sprint to make a sweeping, yet hugely intimate narrative on the big screen. The story follows four characters dogged by Death, a literal femme fatale played by Kasey Foster. Death is rendered useless after her modern scythe - a Tindr-like death app - is switched out for a video game by five-year-old Melba, the characters’ worlds are suspended in a meditative state on life, death, and purpose. Barrow’s Thief of Mirrors took a similar technique of the manual overhead projector, however it was strictly with his narration, his own artwork turned translucent puppets, and original scoring. Told in two episodes, first the title piece as an homage to a popular Canadian cat burglar character, and the second entitled Looking For Love in the Hall of Mirrors in which an artist moves to the big city and haunts a popular gay cruising park to find completion in his personal, romantic, and artistic endeavors. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre hosted the stripped down third piece, The Table, in which a bunraku puppet, managed by three improvisational puppeteers, is commissioned to play and tell the story of Moses and his death. All three performances I attended featured characters in an existential crisis, and although there were some successful elements of the last two, Mementos Mori was the most successful in presenting a complete, honest story that stuck with me well after the performance - and using no dialogue.

Daniel Barrow narrating Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors

Thief of Mirrors was simply the weakest of the three, it could hardly be called performance: I felt like I was trapped in the most snobbish and self-gratifying graduate dissertation, in which the narrator (who carried no vocal performance ability, talking does not equal telling a story) collected all his favourite academic-sounding and ostentatious words, squished them together for some kind of social commentary, and made some cool movement with the actual art. His work was isolating, the audience would chuckle at some jokes mostly to try to feel included. It was self indulgent, masturbatory work for artists. His second piece contained some ache of loneliness, which was nice, but then Barrow’s heavy commentary took me right out of it. If both pieces had very minimal narration. It would have been infinitely more successful. But event the manipulation of the puppets was not much: he had no sense of transition, of movement, of pace - it was a lot of wiggling and wiping. This performance landed in an unfortunate place, in between a captivating still painting and what Manual Cinema was capable of.


Barrow's Thief of Mirrors

The Table contained some story structure, but largely it was an odd blend of stand-up comedy and a bunraku instructional seminar that left us waiting for some kind of completion. It was definitely a better performance, but I’m not sure if it was billed appropriately as an “existential inquiry into the nature of man and of God”. I understand their connection of puppets and their puppeteers paralleling man and God, through the principles of puppetry (focus, breathing, and fixed point) the puppeteers can make us see what is not there as a comment on religion obscuring what is belief and truth - yet this was all done in such a metatheatrics way that it did not draw me nor the audience in. The high point of the drama was the puppet playing Moses throwing a tantrum because his imagined world was ruined after two of the puppeteers abandoned parts of his body. As I’ve said, I understand where they were trying to go, however, the improvisational nature of the show took the puppeteers way off route that ended with an all too blatant and very rushed wrap up.

Three puppeteers of Blind Summit at work (photo by Lorna Palmer)

Manual Cinema had a unique, dreamy, and grand technique all their own - they captured the lens and the mindset of each character so specifically. The gorgeous watercolor and large scale world of Melba, the soft Old Hollywood lights and sequences in the old cinema keeper Mel’s imagination, and the foreign and isolating reality of the now dead Marie eased us into each expressionist viewpoint. Everything was so precisely choreographed, so thoughtfully orchestrated, that the limitations of a paper puppet on an overhead projector were forgotten because of the company’s attention to detail: the movement of an eyelash flutter, the supernatural abilities of Death, and the personal secrets of these all culminated in this introspective and meditative story of longing and death. I loved it.


Manual Cinema creates introspection with dual screens (photo by Marc Perlish)

Real Talk: This inaugural festival is a biennial affair, and I am absolutely looking forward to January 2017 if they include more daring companies like Manual Cinema. They are creating the work that advances and enriches the umbrella term of puppetry, and unfortunately I have to wait until after June of this year to see more of their work. The festival offered a huge wealth of education, interaction, and surprises, I hope that this becomes a Chicago institution. To find out more, please visit


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