Chapel Hill’s Forest Theater comes alive once again as Paperhand Puppet Intervention begins its summer production, The Painted Bird. Written by Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman and underscored by an orchestra of eight multi-instrumentalists, this original production depicts the world as green and prosperous before mankind takes the color out of life. On opening night, prior to the show’s prompt seven o’clock start, taking advantage of the natural light, the orchestra area was filled with children, eager to see the new puppets created especially for this show.

The work progresses from a point just prior to mankind’s appearance, showing the natural world as happy and productive. As life progresses, creation of flora and fauna is depicted as being created by the Elements, each one represented as a huge two-story high being of intense color. Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water come together to create new creatures to populate the planet, culminating in the coming of man. The Painted Bird, the image of Nature, flies freely at the beginning of the show, before man turns the earth into an urban blight.

At first, mankind’s influence on the world is minimal. Shown onstage as giant faces and hands, Man sleeps while Nature continues her creative path. Farmers and ranchers, depicted as small creatures of rabbits and mice, joyfully tend the earth as gentle planters, reaping plenty from the land. This portion of the show culminates a long and happy dance to celebrate “Harvesting Day,” and the stage is filled with dancing and song. But Man slowly awakens, and gray figures begin to infiltrate the land, beginning as hands, eyes, ears, and noses. Man’s senses come together as faces with gaping, gnashing mouths. Slowly, almost painfully, the verdant land is transformed into a gray, colorless depiction of urban sprawl. 

The show runs about ninety minutes without intermission, providing this full house with a myriad of different figures and creatures, each created by one or more puppeteers. A total of seventeen puppeteers bring this show to vivid life, each one working tirelessly to bring about this tale of Man’s own descent into a dull, seemingly lifeless gray.

Hope comes in small but steadily growing touches of life, and signs of green begin to show in the city. Solar panels appear on roofs, a windmill begins to turn, and greenery begins to dot the streets. As we begin to respect what we have, the signs of life that were seemingly blotted out by gray again appear. In small, gentle ways, life begins to reinsinuate itself into the gray, blighted streets.

Paperhand’s annual production brings to the stage a kind of magic that is not seen in other productions. Using music, dance, color, and beautiful creations of puppetry, Paperhand presents a show unlike any other. Unlike other puppet shows, this work is to be seen and enjoyed by people of all ages. Bring a picnic basket, pillows, or even your own chair, but most of all bring family and friends. Everyone will enjoy and profit from a trip to see The Painted Bird.

The Painted Bird continues at Forest Theater through Sunday, September 7 before transferring the production the next weekend to The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.