Sunday, January 22, 2017

The puppet festival is in town

Kick the Klown Presents a Konkatention of Kafka

     What happened Friday? Well, I watched Donald Trump's inaugural address. Sixteen minutes of empty boasts and impossible promises, marinated in a soup of noxious bile, staining this country as a hellhole that only one man, he, The Donald, our savior, can deliver us from.
     I think that about sums it up. 
     That evening my wife and I, hoping for relief, went to Lincoln Avenue, for the opening of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. 
     We got there early, planning a quick snack. We hadn't wandered Lincoln Avenue for many years, and what we found  surprised us. Many empty storefronts, a sparsely populated street on a Friday evening. "The happening crowd must have moved to Wicker Park," I observed, grimly. We were happy to see Irish Eyes is still there. "Whitey O'Day," I said, remember a large singer who would belt out Irish ballads while I belted back shots of John Power and black and tans.
     We had our first real date on Lincoln Avenue, at the Jury Room—long gone, closed in 1994. I couldn't even find the old address in the sweep of the Internet, kept bumping into its later incarnation a mile up Lincoln. Though we saw an elaborate wooden storefront that made me think this had been it. We went inside and sat at the bar.  It was a place called de Quay, and just asking about the Jury Room — nobody had any idea, nobody even had been born when we went there — put a certain pall on the visit. The staff were attentive and courteous, but I still felt like we were suddenly an elderly couple who had wandered in to get out of the cold. We sat at the bar, ate a very good cheese fondue appetizer, and went to the puppet show. 
    Opening night was packed. The first performance was "Cendres," by Plexus Polaire, a French troupe. A sophisticated, atmospheric piece about a Norwegian arsonist, it was more tonality and beauty than plot or dialogue. The puppetwork was very good, the puppets eerie and human. The music was also brooding and powerful. The puppets were often life size, and three puppeteers managed to fill the stage — at one point I counted eight puppets at work.  There was some deft stagecraft involving downing beer after beer, and the part I liked best, because it was strange and unexplained, a full-sized puppet being extracted from an elk carcass, Edie disliked that moment—she singled it out—for the same reasons I liked it. I wouldn't urge you to run to see the performance, but didn't mind that we had.
     There was a reception—well-supplied by Wishbone—then we trooped upstairs to see Michael Montenegro perform his "Kick the Klown presents a Konkatention of Kafka." I'd seen his work before, in "The Puppetmaster of Lodz" at Writers Theater, years ago. Excellent. So my hopes were high.
     Alas — and here I have to tread gently because, really, what's the point of panning a performance in a bi-annual puppet festival — it was shambolic hour of dullness, loud and artless, a man in a putty nose shrieking "Kafka!" and shredding pages from his diaries. The puppets were ordinary. The highlight, conceptually, was a machine that delivered a kick to his backside, which should give you a sense of the thing. It reminded me of the sort of experimental theater that I've spent a lifetime vigorously avoiding because it's amateur and unpleasant. Given how experienced Montenegro is, and that his work was chosen to open the festival, I have to consider the possibility that it is supposed to be ad hoc and obscure and shallow, and I just missed the overarching poetry of the thing.  The audience seemed happy, so perhaps the appeal was entirely beyond me. But as someone who can pretty much enjoy anything from The Ring Cycle to a flea circus, I can't imagine what that appeal might be. 
    Anyway, there are 90 productions being performed all over Chicago during the festival, and I hope my experience doesn't keep you from investigating them. Many of them must be far better than what we saw because they could hardly ... well, don't make me say it.  In fact, the Tribune went to the pre-opening show Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Art—lucky Tribune—and found it "a deeply moving experience."  "Klown" is being performed Sunday night, and I would encourage you to go and explain to me what I'm missing. You can find the rest of the performance schedule here.


  1. yes lincoln avenue has changed in the nearly 40 years since i too met my ( first) wife in what is now OZ park. so many old favorites have come and gone, the wise fools pub, the bulls, 2250, the red lion, st germain, john barleycorn , the bakery. the original pot belly is still there. and if your ever back in the area looking for a bite to eat let me recommend the bougouis pig on fullerton just east of lincoln. its named for you and me its the least we can do to eat there

  2. I was reading a Cracked article and part of it was about this bizarre puppet show in Australia. The video is both disturbing and mesmerizing, it's just got to be seen to be believed.


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