After a summer gully-washer wiped out their Friday performance, Paperhand Puppet Intervention opened their 2016 summer show with a packed theater Saturday night. Folks began arriving at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre around 5:30 p.m., picking out their favorite seat and opening up their dinner picnics, waiting for the 6:20 preshow before a 7:00 curtain. The opening act was the Bulltown Strutters, a Durham-based New Orleans-style jazz band that quickly got the whole theater, which was already filling up, really rockin’. The band, which got together in 2010, is an old-style “parade” band, the kind that used to walk the streets of New Orleans to mark a funeral. From clarinet and horns to banjo and a touch of jug band music, the combo rocked the house for about thirty minutes.

Paperhand’s newest work, written especially for this venue, is The Beautiful Beast, a quartet of stories that reminds us that monsters are really kinda cute and that Man’s push to deplete our natural resources is self destructive. The stage was populated with all kinds of beasts and monsters, from the scary blobs that hide under the bed to the beautiful wolves that only recently reclaimed their rightful place in our environment.

The first of the four installments, “The Book of Beasts,” is a tale of three small children and their adventures at bedtime. Three puppeteers play the children, wearing helmet-masks with beatific smiles on heads designed to make the bodies look smaller, so these three grownups look like tykes. It was an illusion that was especially effective. As the trio gathered around their bedtime storybook, the monsters came out of hiding. Handled by anywhere from one to three puppeteers, these monsters came from under the bed, out of the closet, and behind the wall. But surprisingly, these three children were not afraid; they were delighted! As it turned out, these monsters, scary though they looked, were in fact just lonely and wanted the children to play with them. A whole range of strange-looking creatures appeared, from a one-eyed green glob with tentacles to a giant crow with blue legs to a trio of long-eared, four-legged dancers and one little monster with no arms that was no bigger than the children themselves. My favorite was the gray-and-white Whump-A-Thump, a giant glob of a creature that appeared to be absolutely boneless. I would have sworn that the creature had not a bone in its body!

The second part of the program, and the central theme of the evening, was “The Song of Humbaba,” taken from the Gilgamesh fables. Gilgamesh, the narrator tells us, is part god and part man. He is a king and a builder, who creates the magnificent city of Uruk, but he is a cruel leader. The gods send a man-creature, Enkidu, to overthrow Gilgamesh, but the king defeats him in battle, after which the two become friends. They roam the country, looking for adventure. They finally decide to go to a far-off Forest of Cedar, a favorite of the gods, to obtain wood for the further building of Uruk. But the forest is guarded by a fearsome creature known as the Humbaba.

Upstage, four large logs begin to move, becoming linked to form one huge creature, the Humbaba. The giant face of the monster is a composite of four different pieces of wood, beautifully crafted to make this fearsome head. After an epic battle, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the beast and return with wood to Uruk. The gods decide to punish the two and strike down Enkidu with a fatal illness. Gilgamesh is heartbroken and swears to take Humbaba’s place to save the world from the excesses of men like him who ravage the earth.

Part III is a choral chant, made up of singing puppeteers in beautiful choral harmony. Printed in the program are six verses reflecting on the evils of polluters and the futility of fossil fuels. The chanters urge us to reject fossil fuel for renewable energy.

Part IV, which is a combination of animated puppets and a shadow-puppet presentation, tells the fable of how the wanderer, La Loba, meets up with the Grandmother of the Earth while on a quest for knowledge. The Grandmother tells La Loba about the destruction of the Wolf by Man and what it has done to the Earth. Through magic and the force of will, La Loba works with the Grandmother to repopulate the earth with wolves and, as we watch, wolves appear and wander through Forest Theatre. It is a fine and fitting conclusion to a remarkable quartet of tales retold by gigantic and wonderful puppets.

The entire show is underscored by a soundtrack composed by Jennifer Curtis and performed by a nine-piece orchestra and singers. It takes the talents and toils of twenty puppeteers to bring The Beautiful Beast to fruition, but the audience was completely engrossed and made sure that the players knew it. The children especially, who must have made up half the audience, were spellbound. The conclusion to The Beautiful Beast is the blessing of the Great Cosmic Mother, who moves through the audience, towering over the people, and smiling down on the proceedings. It took three puppeteers to animate the GCM, and the children were enraptured.

The Beautiful Beast continues every weekend in August and also the weekend prior to Labor Day, in Forest Theatre. Following those dates, PPI takes the show to the NC Art Museum in Raleigh from September 9-11, and then to Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre from September 17-18. This gives you plenty of time to plan, but be sure to bring pillows to sit on, and be ready for your children to roam. It’s nearly impossible for a child to sit still in a PPI Production!

Please view the sidebar for full details on The Beautiful Beast at every stop on its tour.