Time does not follow the clock during the hour-long series of sketches at Theatre Zarko; instead it compresses and stretches and allows the thoughts of the audience to do the same. At times this is necessary to enable the audience to try to take in the many levels of "The Sublime Beauty of Hands," the first presentation of the evening; the second, "Klown Kantos" compresses most thoughts into laughter.

Theatre Zarko, the latest creation of Evanston artist Michael Montenegro, opened its doors several months ago to puppet-making classes. Its first full show - with puppets large and small - opened on Sept. 25 in the studio space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. For this production, Mr. Montenegro was writer, director, designer and creator.

'The Sublime Beauty of Hands'

"The Sublime Beauty of Hands" opens with a girl's recalling a toy found by her sister and brought for her to play with. But the toy was a land mine that exploded. "My hands turned into birds. I didn't know what to do [so] I turned into a fish and swam away," she says.

In a silence courted by the original music of keyboardist Jude Matthews, the audience witnesses the creation of the land mine: Four masked figures each sell a component and are paid with blood-red money. The four meet with a fifth person, who exchanges his toy elephant for a suitcase containing bright red gloves. He wears these to assemble the explosive. When the four who provided the components see the girl playing with it, they rush toward her, crying "No!" They are too late.

Fantastic prostheses dominate the final scene - pronged, wheeled, fingered attachments to arms. The girl stands near a bowl of pears, looking at her new metal finger, never daring to pick up the fruit. All the others, wounded by their participation in the destruction, are fitted, sometimes roughly, with new appendages - strange and perhaps wondrous.

'Klown Kantos'

After a brief intermission, it was a relief to experience the humor of Michael Montenegro and his ensemble, composed of Nancy Andria, Kate Sloan Fiffer, Laura Montenegro, Ellen O'Keefe and Jason Tucker. The evening moved from intellectually challenging, dark and poetic to relaxing, light and comedic, from contemporary tragedy to timeless comedy. Musicians Don Jacob (clarinet) and Ben Weber (viola) joined Ms. Matthews.

Because of the staying power of "Sublime Beauty," the transition to "Kantos" is striking. It is good to laugh and to experience, during the six briskly staged Kantos, the astonishing real-ness of puppets taking on life and the talents of those who make it happen.

Mr. Montenegro's art confounds the relationship between creator and creation, between puppet and actor. His tiny Old Man seems as alive as any human actor, even with the puppeteer hovering over him. The attention of the audience is completely focused on the inanimate object that somehow comes limping onstage with a cane, settles into his rocking chair, crosses his legs and tells stories of Chile - a land of both poverty and great beauty - and the puppeteer fades into the scenery.

The production runs through Nov. 1 on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Zarko studio space in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.