One of the oldest and most haunting forms of performance does not even feature live actors: It is the puppet theater.
Considering that puppets are inanimate, it is remarkable how they have refused to die, over centuries of changing tastes in entertainment. Indeed, they are experiencing a global resurgence in recent years, which has reached the heart of the Midwest. In Chicago, the International Puppet Festival in January 2017 played dozens of sold-out shows. While the legendary Redmoon Theater closed its doors a few years ago, its artistic director has risen like a phoenix to form the Cabinet of Curiosities Events, whose experimental works are drawing enthusiastic audiences.
And Evanston can boast that it is home to a master puppet artist, Michael Montenegro, whose Theatre Zarko has performed his original works of “puppet symbolist theatre” for more than 20 years.
Mr. Montenegro has collaborated with many regional artists, including Mary Zimmerman (whose 2006 play “Argonautika” featured mythical puppet creatures he crafted) and the Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, which in 2007 mounted Gilles Segal’s haunting play about the Holocaust, “The Puppetmaster of Lodz”; Mr. Montenegro created a complete puppet theatre for the production and received a Jeff Award.
A small, inanimate object can unquestionably evoke great stories and powerful emotions, Mr. Montenegro says. “As a puppet artist working in the human theater world, I constantly struggle with the difference between puppet and human actors,” he explains. “I look for things that cannot be expressed by human beings as well as with puppets.”
Puppets can tell stories that are hilarious, painful, simple, or epic. This fall, he collaborated with Blair Thomas in a puppet version of “Moby Dick” that went all the way to the Festival Mondial des Théatres de Marionnettes in northern France. “It’s an incredible challenge to take something with the epic and mythic dimensions of that novel and pull it down, almost like a microscopic lens, to something that is as infinitesimal as a puppet. The surrealistic, dreamlike qualities of Moby Dick are the things that appeal to me.”
Puppets draw an audience into that mythic world, Mr. Montenegro says. “One of the elements we are creating is a human-sized puppet, which is the left half of Captain Ahab. It is a surrealistic image that lends itself beautifully to puppets and can’t be dramatized by a human actor. This driven individual, Ahab, was actually divided against himself, it was something in himself that he was at battle with: the white whale inside of himself, this unconquerable aboriginal force. So we experimented with creating a puppet that embodies this inner division.”
Puppet theater has always been linked to childhood. Mr. Montenegro notes the influence of artist Jim Hensen and his Muppets in bringing puppetry to national attention in the 1960s, and later Julie Taymor’s puppet-based production of “The Lion King.”
Children love to make and work with puppets. “There’s something wonderfully anti-technology about puppet theatre. It appeals to kids who are swimming in technology. It’s very refreshing to find an activity in which they can work with their hands and use their imaginations. It’s a kind of outsider art.”
There is a mystery evoked by a puppet, this strange, often awkward-looking object that can be animated to wild motion by the unseen movements of the hand. We react with amusement but also discomfort, perhaps because the puppet calls up primitive emotions, fantasies locked in our own unconscious. Playwright Paul Claudel wrote, “It’s so amusing to keep well hidden and make someone come to life: to create that little doll that goes in at the eyes of every spectator to strut and posture in his mind! In all those rows of motionless people only this little goblin moves, like the wild elfish soul of all of them. They gaze at him like children, and he sparkles like a little firecracker.” (Quoted in Kenneth Gross, “The Madness of Puppets.”)
If puppets can bring back the forgotten joys of childhood, they can also bring back its terrors of seeing demonic life hidden in the world of objects. Mr. Montenegro suggests imagining “an experience of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a chair in the room with a coat thrown over it, and seeing a person sitting there, and then your eyes adjust, and you realize it is just a coat thrown over a chair. Then you trick yourself and return to the imagined image and entertain yourself, but your first experience is really terror.
“Many children are afraid of puppets, and they are rightly afraid, because they sense the uncanny quality of the illusion, of simulating something that is alive. A good puppet artist plays with that.”
While he has been influenced by modernist artists like Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Samuel Beckett, Mr. Montenegro also loves photography. “I like to peruse photographs with a magnifying glass. It’s such a strange experience, because these interesting elements emerge from the shadows.
“Since I was little,” Mr. Montenegro says, “the phenomenon of life has always fascinated me, of something that is alive. For something to have a will of its own is frightening and fascinating and intriguing. For me, that is very much a part of my love of puppetry. I love the uneasy relationship, juxtaposition, maybe, of the dummy and the human – something that looks alive but is not alive. There’s a strange sort of invasion of one world into another world. I compare it to gluing a photograph onto a painting. There’s a shock value to viewing two worlds clashing. Or a composer including sounds from the natural world or automobile sounds.
“I often find things in my studio or in my environment that drive an idea. A ball of chicken wire or a paint rag or a discarded piece of wood or a dried lemon, may suggest to me the core of an idea for a figure. I am not the type of artist who conceives a figure and does a drawing and then buys the material. I work intuitively, I like the mystery of it, I am fascinated by the idea of inviting the mysterious into my work. You have to be very gentle with it and guide it, and also be willing to follow it.”
Mr. Montenegro is more than a storyteller and puppet theater artist. He is a poet, painter, and sculptor as well. Since returning from the Festival Mondial, he has dedicated himself to other art projects and is allowing his puppets a rest. Nevertheless, Theatre Zarko will reemerge in 2018, alive and kicking. He is not sure the direction it will take, but it is certain that these smaller-than-life creatures will perform once again their wild and uncanny encounters with the human world.