International Puppet Theater Fest Brings Magic to Chicago

Photo: Kingorama presents “Song of the North” Created and Directed by Hamid Rahmanian Produced by Melissa Hibbard Written by Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard Original Music by Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali Puppet design by Saba Niknam and Hamid Rahmanian Digital animation by Hoda Ramy Puppets made by Neda Kazemifar Additional creative support by Syd Fini, Parisa Harandi, Negin Keyhanfar, Shuhei Matsuyama, Ahmad SadriInvited Dress Rehearsal Photographed: Friday, October 29, 2021; 9:15 AM at the BAM Fisher (Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC; Photograph: © 2021 RICHARD TERMINE PHOTO CREDIT - RICHARD TERMINE
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By Fran Zell

Puppets are magical. They take us out of ourselves in order to better see ourselves and the world. They make us think, they make us laugh, open us to the healing possibilities of the spirit world, and they appeal to all ages. Puppets are soft and cuddly, hard as stone, or as fragile and ephemeral as paper, every construction relating specifically to the story they tell and emotions they seek to evoke.  Puppets transcend language in a world where even people speaking the same language can’t understand each other.  And sometimes they use language to remind us that puppets are, of course, a manifestation of ourselves. 

Manual Cinema: Leonardo! (with Lily Emerson, Leah Casey, Sarah Fornace, Anney Fresh)
Photo by REBECCA J MICHELSON

Puppets have been an integral part of theater for thousands of years in almost every country in the world. Contemporary artists and companies from around the world are currently appearing at 26 different venues around Chicago to offer a delicious taste of what puppetry can do for the heart, mind and spirit, all with the added benefits of digital and multimedia technology. The 6th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival began on Thursday January 18 and will continue through Sunday, January 28. It offers a rich variety of  performances, workshops, free neighborhood events, book talks, panel discussions, cabaret and more, all with the stated goal of promoting peace, equality, mutual understanding, and justice locally and globally.

It’s a tall order. But, of course, art has always been with us for such purposes, and from what I saw during the first weekend of international puppetry, the festival doesn’t stray from its goals.  This year’s festival welcomes companies from Belgium, Chile, Germany,  Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, Poland, with two New York-based companies representing Colombia and Persia. The U.S. is represented by puppeteers from Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Chicago.

Krystal Puppeteers: Tears by the River

It is difficult to select just a few shows to attend for an overall impression of North America’s biggest event devoted to puppetry. I will be forever grateful that one of my choices was A Bucket of Beetles, by Papermoon Puppet Theatre, an Indonesian company that traditionally uses its artistry to address urgent issues of our time —in this case, climate change. It’s an exquisite, beautifully presented show, which in the process of reminding us of the fragility of the planet, upholds the award-winning company’s central belief that “anything can come alive. Every creature, every single thing in the world holds life somewhere inside of it”. Papermoon has toured world-wide and won many awards since it was founded in 2006 by Maria Tri Sulistyani, who is co-artistic director with Iwan Effendi

A Bucket of Beetles tells the story of Wehea, a little boy who lives in a rain forest and, like the other humans around him, has a special connection to nature. Even the smallest creatures in the forest are his friends. When he encounters a large, unusual insect called the rhinoceros beetle an adventure begins for him as he sets out to meet it. This leads to a friendship that ultimately saves his life.

Papermoon Puppet Theatre: A Bucket of Beetles

So much talent, love and creativity flow magically together to make this the magnificent show it is, including directing by Sulistyani;  puppet design and music directing by Effendi; lighting design by Anton Fajri; original music by Yennu Ariendra; and costumes by Retno Intiani.  Perhaps the most enchanting part of all is that Bucket of Beetles originated from drawings created by Sulistyani’s then four-year old son, Lunang Pramusesa, and that she worked with him to fully devise the script. His drawings also inspired puppet design. Lunang performs in the show alongside a small troupe of adult puppeteers and a lifesize puppet version of his younger self.

It is this artful mix of live puppeteering along with projected images in light and shadows that makes this show especially come alive and also helps to reinforce its central concept: that humans, animals and even inanimate objects are interconnected and dependent on each other.

Also enchanting was the fact that no words were used in the entire 50-minute show, yet everything was understandable, including the peak moment of possible climate disaster.

Papermoon Puppet Theatre: A Bucket of Beetles

“What happened?”  a little boy sitting down the row from me whispered loudly when the fanstastical world with which we had all been enthralled suddenly dissolved into ash.  “What happened?” he asked again into the sharp, stunned silence. Even without words he knew, we all knew, something was very wrong.   

There were five performances of A Bucket of Beetles at Chopin Theater in Wicker Park over the January 19-21 weekend, the fifth one added at the last minute to accommodate sell-out crowds. 

Other featured shows the first festival weekend included the world premiere of Wakka Wakka’s Dead as a Dodo at Victory Gardens Theatre, suggesting a possible reversal to extinction in another artistic effort to help save the planet. Hamid Rahmanian: Song of the North was performed at the Studebaker Theater at the Fine Arts Building with 500 hand made paper puppets.  They were operated by nine actors and puppeteers, including Rahmanian who created, directed, and co-wrote the show with Melissa Hibbard. Song of the North turns portions of an ancient epic Persian poem (The Book of Kings) into an epic, film-like spectacle of shadow puppetry and projected animation. The Iranian born Rahmanian lives in New York and says he created the show in an effort to acquaint Western audiences with some of Iran/Persia’s rich culture.

Photo: Kingorama presents “Song of the North” Created and Directed by Hamid Rahmanian. Produced by Melissa Hibbard Written by Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard. Original Music by Ramin Torkian and Azam. Ali Puppet design by Saba Niknam and Hamid Rahmanian. Digital animation by Hoda Ramy. Puppets made by Neda Kazemifar. Additional creative support by Syd Fini, Parisa Harandi, Negin Keyhanfar, Shuhei Matsuyama, Ahmad SadriI. Photographed: Friday, October 29, 2021; 9:15 AM at the BAM Fisher (Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC; Photograph: © 2021 RICHARD TERMINE PHOTO CREDIT – RICHARD TERMINE


The Chicago Puppet Fest continues through Sunday January 28. Featured events include Basil Twist: Book of Mountains and Sea at the Studebaker Theater and Manual Cinema: Leonardo! A Wonderful Show about a Terrible Monster at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Hyde Park.  Both shows run Friday through Sunday. There is much more, including free neighborhood presentations of Tears by the River, by Krystal Puppeteers, a Kenyan-German troupe.  Then it all winds up with a Closing Night Cabaret fundraiser on Sunday at the Rhapsody Theater in Rogers Park. Check tickets and information. for all the remaining events.

All photos are courtesy of Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

About Fran Zell 11 Articles
Fran Zell is a freelance journalist, based in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She also writes plays, short stories, and essays.

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