Ellen O’Keefe and Michael Montenegro’s original “Haff, the Man” and their adaptation of Dino Buzzati’s “Falling Girl” captivated the opening-weekend audience at the Theatre Zarko space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.

Zarko puppets transcend their visible mechanics to become at once startlingly lifelike and disturbingly abstract.

In “Haff,” silence and darkness transport the audience to the mind of Lou: Two small, imperious puppets, the left and the right side of Lou, argue over a changing dream in which a man climbs a ladder on the side of a burning house but fails to rescue the woman – and perhaps a child – inside.

These tiny half-men, each with a cane, inch toward a kitchen table. When they/he reach it, one pours and one drinks. One Lou, one-half Lou, or one half-Lou, is angry, commanding his other half to stay put while he runs an errand and even demands the stage hands to “get this stuff out of here.”

These marvelous puppets manage a train ride, a joyous flip in the air, and a pas-de-deux of reconciliation that both delights and tears at the heart.

In “Falling Girl,” a young girl falls off the roof of a skyscraper. Marta free-falls in slow motion past the floors of this endless building. Inhabitants of its floors represent the social classes of an industrialized society. The guests at a wealthy penthouse party display conspicuous consumption and shallowness. Middle class office workers are depersonalized. All of them exhibit the ennui of those who see life pass by their windows.

Marta is excited, waiting to embrace life: “Opportunity is waiting for me down there – fate, romance. Will I arrive on time?”

 “A woman is falling,” chirp the revelers, at the tiny silver puppet floating horizontally in the background. They soon return to their vapid laughter and dancing.

Lower down, she peers at three office workers. “Take me with you,” calls a chorus of automatons, who face the window but whose masks, all identical, face the audience. Near the bottom, an older couple sips their coffee as they see yet another body fall past their window. The woman remarks that while living closer to the ground does not afford a beautiful view, there is the satisfaction of hearing the thuds of women hitting the ground.

Jude Mathews is a master of creating emotional milieu in sound. Her original music, performed live by Ms. Mathews with ensemble, perfectly expresses the characters and atmosphere.

The sets and scenery are near-magical: The foreground and background change places subtly, almost beneath the level of the viewer’s consciousness. Each spectator fleshes out the events onstage from within his or her frame of reference during the course of the fall.

 As Marta nears the ground she worries that her dress is not fancy enough and that others will get there before her. By the time she reaches the ground, now a large puppet, not having participated in life, she has aged and is now an old woman.

Mr. Montenegro, founder and artistic director of Theatre Zarko, confronts thoughts that most would prefer not to think. While his artistry embraces the grotesque and explores brutality and what it does to the soul, it also encompasses beauty, humor and grace.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...