‘Fool’s Tango’ “Letter” Photo by Michael Tekle

“Fool’s Tango,” reprised at Theatre Zarko as adult fare, draws its audience into the microcosm of artistic director/puppeteer Michael Montenegro. Mr. Montenegro portrays a world where the thoughts and emotions that are often held privately – sometimes shamefully – are exposed but without judgment. To accomplish this he resorts to exaggeration: Nobody but the keyboardist is life-sized. Puppets with outsized heads, tiny bodies and skewed features may be reflections of the universal human psyche. As an example, everyone is a narcissist in the world of Cecil the Actor, whose head (Mr. Montenegro’s own) is just about the same size as his tiny body.

Despite the strings and hands that manipulate his characters, Mr. Montenegro lets his characters exist in a world apparently devoid of context. Endings – slowed to the pace of a dance in “Lovers in Suitcase” or abrupt as in “Death & the Mouse” – rarely bring closure, leaving the audience to decide the end and the interpretation.

In “The Letter,” a vignette in mime, a man sitting in a chair pulls a worn letter from his pocket. He clasps it dreamily to his heart, holds it up as if to reread it, crumples it, smells it then smoothes it out and returns it to the pocket. Even with a large, unmoving mask for a face, the man is clearly emotional. The audience is left to fill in the contents and the context. The letter could be a missive of love, a breakup note or a letter bearing bad news.

The most obvious tango appears in “Death & the Mouse,” in which the inches-high puppet Death, wearing a skeleton suit and what may be a bicycle bell for a hat, is jubilant after killing each victim: “I’m a busy man; I’m a happy man.” The Mouse may have cheated Death, Br’er Rabbit-like, by telling him that mice are most afraid of cheese. Or maybe Death returns to his happy, busy work.

The delicate relationship between creature and creator provides a subtext of many vignettes, but, despite the implications of the title, “Fool’s Tango” requires more than two: Puppeteer and character require the audience as a third partner.

“Fool’s Tango”  runs through May 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at Theatre Zarko, studio 213 in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Those who demand beauty and balance, catharsis and straight-rail reconciliation in their theatre-going need not attend. Those willing to venture into a new realm of theatre where the bizarre and grotesque are normal (for an hour or so) will find some laughter and some serious thought in this performance. Tickets and information
are available at theatrezarko.org.

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...