Sunday, January 23, 2022

The puppetry of disappointment


      The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival has put on some fine performances. But Thursday's opening night of their 2022 season at the Museum of Contemporary Art was not among them. As it unfolded, I passed the time by puzzling how something produced by so many adults—10 on stage, by my count, with no doubt more behind the scenes—could so consistently fall flat, hitting that sweet spot of mediocrity where it isn't so bad as to be awful and maybe even camp and thus nearly enjoyable, yet not skilled enough in concept or execution to quality as professional entertainment. The dancing was clunky, the songs forgettable, and while there were several quite lovely voices, harmonies were nonexistent. The thing had the flimsiest narrative thread: a ship and the sea, a crew and onions. The puppets—a large whale, a mermaid, a moon—were well-made, and handled competently enough. Nobody dropped one. Someone played a fiddle.
     There was a pair of exquisite illuminated jellyfish puppets—their presence, the highlight of the show, a hint of what might have been had anyone applied rigor—and halfway through I decided that it was amateurish enough that any kind of specific criticism would be futile, maybe even cruel, which is why I'm not naming the company. I'm sure they're all fine people, with loving families and personal feelings, proud of their endeavor, and I have no desire to hurt them. Maybe they'll improve.
     Or is that the racism of low expectations? A lower bar based on the degraded status of puppetry? Or even condescending sexism? It appeared to be an all-female cast, and to suggest that they are thus somehow freed from the obligation to put on a competent show for patrons paying money in a downtown theater .... that isn't fair to everyone else. No. Shouldn't they be held to the same standards? And what about the audience? Aren't patrons of their art entitled to both form opinions based on their work and to express them? To urge them to do better? Out of respect for every street corner theater that does manage to produce something worth watching? So yes, it was Chicago's own Cabinet of Curiosity, performing "Sea Change," described in their materials as "their celebrated outdoor exploration of the power of the sea and the feminine divine." Celebrated? Truly? 
Maybe I caught them on an off night, then.
     There certainly could be something here. A kind of rollicking "SpongeBob" cabaret of lost sailors invoking an indifferent, maybe non-existent God. The big whale could have done something beside circling the stage, crying for Charlie. These seem to be different vignettes written by different authors. Maybe something more unifying than a bawdy cook braying at the audience about onions. Maybe they just needed to refine the thing. Try harder.
     I did wonder how the puppet theater festival could commence on such a slapdash fashion—if they actually hope to insinuate themselves into the cultural life of Chicago, as their founder claimed to me, they'll have to do better than this. The Great Chicago Fire Festival also had big aspirations (and also came from the puppetry world) but they too could not stick their landing and lasted two years. This was as soggy as a barge in the middle of the Chicago River in the rain.
     I considered leaving halfway through the performance—it was that bad—but we were sitting in the middle of our row, and I knew the show was only an hour. Maybe that's the line they could pull as a promotional quote: "Cabinet of Curiosity offers a thought-provoking hour of song and dance, every minute fully-felt, culminating in a disquisition of the difficulty of putting on a coherent performance that will linger with the audience long after the last skeleton fish puppet has fluttered offstage." Having endured two years of pandemic, I knew I could get through this and, frankly, toward the end of the performance, the idea of being homebound with no live entertainment options suddenly seemed a Lost Eden.
      The only line that I jotted down was one of the closing lyrics, "We are not ashamed," which might neatly explain how this show came to be—and why coughing into my fist and passing in silence would not really be a kindness, would do nobody any favors. A functioning sense of embarrassment is essential for performers to keep themselves from being blinded by their self-assigned sense of the  divine and thus able to disgorge such unpolished stuff before a discerning Chicago audience: whom, I should add, seemed thoroughly satisfied, applauding and cheering. "It's cool!" said a young woman in front of me. Maybe the internet has so eroded young minds that seeing living people going through actual motions on a physical stage is enough.
      Maybe I'm just not the target audience. I should leave the door open to the idea that perhaps being a male in my early 60s, my senses dulled by decades of performances that were not sunk into coffeehouse mediocrity, that I missed the studied charm of the thing, that what I mistook as artless was in fact intentional, some kind of dada parody of a production, a carefully crafted confusion specifically designed to discomfit snobs like myself who insist that skill and intelligence animate a performance. I suppose that's possible.
     And truth be told, the show's blend of simplistic and incomprehensible did not dampen our moods. Halfway through, I locked eyes with my wife, and saw the same stunned look. I leaned in close to her ear. "Sorry," I breathed. But we were still out on the town, dinner—a block away, at the excellent Cafecito on Chestnut, was undiminished. She did not seem perturbed that I had dragged her here, dismissing the audience's enthusiasm as the delight of relatives and friends, plus assorted generous souls and those happy to see absolutely anything whatsoever transpire upon a stage.
     When the lights came up, and we broke for the exit like pearl divers reaching the surface, lungs burning for that first gulp of sweet air—in that way, the show did evoke the actual sea—my only goal was to flee without encountering anyone from the puppet festival. I made it to the lobby, but there was the executive director I had interviewed for my column Wednesday celebrating the festival before the fact. She planted herself in our path.
     "Well, off and running!" I said, hoping that would suffice.
     "What did you think of it?" she asked directly. I hesitated. 
     "Sincere," I said, nodding meaningfully, hoping I had found a word both true and inoffensive. She seemed satisfied.
     "Yes, it was earnest," she agreed. If only that were enough.


  1. With all due respect...maybe, just maybe, enough with the puppets already? Mastery of the art, or not, performances, reviews; feels like you're stringing us along. I do see the benefit for children in areas of language, listening, social development, and emotional development.
    Glad you enjoyed dinner though.

    1. I had the same thought. This show sort of soured me on the art, for the time being. I was supposed to go to a workshop Tuesday, but I'm cancelling. Maybe next year.

    2. Watch out! That executive director may pull a few strings and get the puppetmasters to assign you to the coverage of their next performance, which is a long shlep from your leafy suburban paradise. It's way south, down in Merrionette Park. Best of luck, Mr. S...

  2. Your comment that you weren’t the target audience or maybe your analysis was reflective of your age resonated with me. Watching the “revival” of Oklahoma recently, I had a similar reaction but, in the end, I concluded the production stunk.

  3. What a journey- what I heard was largely a love story between you and Edie, suffering through an obligation to find redemption in a shared gourmet meal.


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