For the nineteenth year in a row, Chapel Hill's resident puppetry outfit, Paperhand Puppet Intervention, has brought the usually-quiet Forest Theatre back to life as it presents its annual Puppet Extravaganza. This year, Master Puppeteers and founders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger have written a program of five short sequences under the heading In the Heart of the Fire. The show runs about ninety minutes without intermission.
First, we meet, as they assemble onstage, "The Senses," all of which were, at one point in the past, ruled by the Heart. Then the Brain entered, and all the senses ran to him. But under the Brain alone, the senses became overloaded with the new and the sensational. It was not until the Heart re-introduced herself that order was restored, as the heart and the brain worked together to make sense of the world around them.
All of this was, of course, presented by large puppets, including the Heart (an actual-shaped one, not a valentine). Each sense in turn was represented by its accompanying organ: the nose came first, then the ears, followed by the mouth, and then the hands. The eyes came last and, together, all of the puppets formed a giant Face, which stared back at us with what appeared to be awe and wonder.
This assembling of the five senses into one huge being was an absolute treat for all the kids who flock to Forest Theatre every year to see what new and exciting creatures PPI has wrought. This season was no different, and the resultant combination of all five senses evoked oohs and aahs of wonder and appreciative applause from the full house. Coming to see the puppets in Forest Theatre has become an annual tradition, and a full contingent of every age level is always evident.
Accompanying the many seen and unseen puppeteers on stage is the Paperhand Band, an eight-member orchestra that supplies an ongoing undercurrent of music throughout the show. The group includes a cello, flutes, guitars, and a massive percussion section, as well as singers and chanters. The octet plays nonstop, providing a complete soundtrack for each year's program. Some of the members have been with the group upwards of ten years.
We are introduced via a series of panels to the next sequence, titled "The Good Fire." The artistry involved – each panel being hand-drawn and painted – is impressive, as each panel fits together with the others to form larger, magnificent murals. In contrast is the "Bad Fire," created from Good Fire by Man, be it from evil purposes or just plain ineptitude. It is clear that the Bad Fire rules at the nonce and that Mankind must work to return to the Good Fire, instead.
The penultimate segment is titled "Trolls on the Move." The Trolls, unlike the ogres in fairytales, are merely representations of the many aspects of the Earth: elements if you will. The first is an old troll that existed, perhaps in the New World, in an idyllic woodland that is quiet and peaceful. She calls herself Magpie. Magpie is driven from her peaceful surroundings by the noise and clamor of her newly arrived neighbors, mankind. As Magpie sees it, these tiny creatures are an infestation, and she cannot abide them. Maybe that's why trolls are always portrayed as mean or grumpy. Magpie travels north, and in doing so she finds and rejoins her father Troll, a great, two-headed beast whose two brains seldom agree. A lot of his time is spent beating up on himself as the two heads argue. As one might expect, Daddy Troll is bigger (and uglier) than his daughter. But the two live peacefully together for some time, until mankind's spreading out finds the two again. War ensues, and again the Trolls are driven out; again they instinctively head north. Finally, in snow-covered mountains, they meet their own grandfather, the icy Wind, and they all continue north to find their great-grandmother. Grandmother is in the form of a Great Spider, and it is she who is Keeper of the Good Fire. Grandmother tells her Trolls – and all of us – the story of the Good Fire and those who are the "Bringers of Fire." This segment, as always a shadow puppet presentation, closes the show.
As is true every year, the creators of PPI, Jan Bergen and Donovan Zimmerman, have written this new script and made the puppets that populate it. Or, more accurately, they have directed their seven interns and more than 150 volunteers who come to the workshops every week to build these marvelous creations. The biggest surprise of the show was a monolithic stone structure that stood just to the left of upstage center. It stood there from before we entered the theater until almost the close of the show, when it suddenly began to move! It morphed into a gigantic stone creature, another Troll, who went on the journey to see the Great Spider. It was really spectacular to watch.
This year the puppet extravaganza plays in Forest Theatre from the first weekend in August through September 23, with one week away from Forest Theatre, at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, over the weekend of Sept. 7-9. For specific dates and show times, please see the sidebar.