Paperhand Puppet Intervention has been presenting glorious shows of puppetry and magic in the Forest Theatre (123 S. Boundary Street, Chapel Hill) for some years now. In fact, the group has become a mainstay at this location, presenting a full-length pageant of puppetry every weekend of the month of September for a milestone of 20 years! Even for superfans like me who have been following PPI for a very long time, that seems incredible!

To celebrate their 20th anniversary at Forest Theatre – which, coincidentally, celebrates its own 100th anniversary this year – Paperhand has pulled out all the stops with a giant two-month run of this summer’s spectacular, We Are Here. Jan Burger‘s original show, which examines “the paradoxical gift of PROGRESS,” is a treat for the eyes and ears, as well as a reminder that, in just about everything (including progress), moderation is the key to a successful enterprise. The show opened this weekend and will present shows every Friday-Sunday until September 29 (with a single weekend stint at NC Museum of Art September 6-8).

As is true of all ventures undertaken al fresco, every night’s run depends on the cooperation of Mother Nature. That being the case, it is not a surprising report that opening night was cancelled due to rain. Thus, Forest Theatre was packed to the walls on Saturday, as those who missed out on Friday’s show joined the already-numerous Saturday evening contingent for PPI’s delayed opening performance. Donovan Zimmerman, who with Burger brought PPI to life here, lo, those many years ago, welcomed the audience with a brief introduction before hurrying backstage to tend to his own multiple puppets.

Briefly, We Are Here begins long before the appearance of man and travels (hopefully) far into the future, as Man’s dominance of Nature brings things to a boil in the heart of the sprawling giant city. We start in the forest primeval, as the first trees come to life and multiply, providing habitat and shelter for all the many animals, beginning with an enterprising squirrel, who buries an acorn that becomes a giant oak. As time passes, the animals grow in number and variety, including a mole, a fox, a deer, and a wildcat. Eventually, Man is introduced as three multi-racial children join the forest creatures in their celebration of the forest in which they all live. But Man – in the form of an adult, the manager of a development project – soon begins to tear down the forest to make room for his cities. All the creatures – and the children – rebel, and do their best to keep the machines of man from destroying the forest, but in return the machines just keep getting bigger, and eventually they overrun the forest creatures and supplant the forest with a sprawling, monstrous city.

Monstrous seems to be the operative word here. First, we are confronted with a monster from the sewer system, made up of all the garbage and debris we dump into our systems daily. It grows as it rolls through the city, and soon it is beyond control. To combat this beast, the populace turns to an inventor, who has created a robot to be the defender of the race. The robot dispatches the sewer monster, but then begins to destroy the city, as well. Nature intervenes, and sends a soil creature to combat the robot, and the soil creature wins the day.

Not so fast, though. Enter a doubly monstrous and gigantic monster from the sea, a huge plastics creature made up of all of our non-biodegradables that are choking the sea. It overcomes the soil creature by regurgitating garbage until it buries the soil. But the soil sends out an S.O.S. to the sea depths, and a creature that might best be described as a merman comes to the soil’s aid. Between the two of them, they vanquish the plastics monster and bury it under a layer of new soil.

But we’re not done yet. The Greed monster, who looks very much like a corporate fat cat, wades into the fray, and brings with it another even more hideous monster, which is even more frightening than the Greed monster, and these two defeat soil and the merman. The two seem to be the last two standing for a time. But the Forest Primeval reasserts itself, bringing back to bear the forces of Nature, which overgrow and vanquish the two remaining monsters, and the children and animals joyously return to celebrate their victory.

By this time in the show it began to get dark in The Forest Theatre, making it time for the shadow puppet part to begin. This segment tells the tale of a man and his daughter – who could be Mr. Burger and his daughter – as they walk beside the Haw River. They walk into the woods, passing a number of landmarks, until they come to a giant magnolia tree. The man is talking to his daughter about development. It appears that a huge development of hundreds of acres is due to start, and it will tear down the forest in which the two are now playing. Eventually, the time comes, and the man is watching as a tractor begins to tear down his beloved trees. As the tractor approaches the magnolia, the man can bear it no longer and goes out himself to confront the tractor and save the tree.

The moral of this tale is obvious, but to bring it home, so to speak, there is a segment of the show that illustrates the importance of trees, the universal symbol of tonight’s performance. It is imperative that we look on trees not as wood to be chopped down and used but as the counterpart to our own breathing apparatus. We are reminded that trees rely, among other things, on carbon dioxide to “breathe.” In return, they emit oxygen. Thus is formed a cycle. They breathe in what we breathe out, and we breathe in what they breathe out. It is as simple as that. Destroy all the trees, and we destroy our own ability to breathe. It is a fact of life that many people have forgotten, but it is one that they should be reminded of, again and again. What happens to the trees, happens to us. And, by extension, what happens to the water, happens to the world. It can’t get any more basic, or any more dire, than that.

The multiple and varied extravaganza that tells us this story is the result of countless hours of creativity and creation. It took three months to build all the puppets that populate this show. That came about due to seven staffers and the constant and intrepid aid of over a hundred volunteers. But also being created were the script, the choreography, and the music for the show. As has been the case for many years now, the show is driven by a full-scale score played by a six-member orchestra. Each of these musicians is multitalented, adding not only their playing ability but also their voices and their humanity to every note of this beautiful new score. So much of this vibrant creativity goes into every single show. It is a moving, driving force, but even in its majestic beauty, it is also fragile and fleeting. And it depends on us, each and every one of us, for its continued existence.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s We Are Here continues through Sunday, September 29. For more details on performance dates and times and to find where to get tickets, please view the sidebar.