Monsters and Magic
by Alan R. Hall
August 6, 2010, Chapel Hill, NC: It is August. That means it is time for the next annual supreme puppet show by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, which happens each year at this time in UNC’s Forest Theater. This year’s theme, Islands Unknown, takes us on a journey up and down the aisles of a massive library, a place where all the stories of all the world are compiled. A young girl and a bookish goat set sail on a sea of useless data — texting, blogging, and clogged information arteries — to find out what stories are really there for the finding. All the preparation takes place in this huge warehouse of books until the paper boat is ready, and the two set sail.
The voyage takes place to the tune of a multi-talented orchestra consisting of guitars (six- and twelve-string), a harp, a cello, a stand-up bass, keyboards, and a momentous amount of percussion. While “the Paperhand Band” consists of only seven people (Will Ridenour, Paul Ford, Jonathan Henderson, Johnny Waken, Jimmy Magoo, Claudia Lopez, and Austin McCall), the wide-ranging musical tapestry created by this group underscores and sustains the entire program.
The two set off down one of the aisles and discover there Animal
Island, a place where the animals walk and talk like people
and humans are not allowed. Beautiful molded heads depict bear, frog,
squirrel, fox, fish, owl, bird, and cat. But the arrival of the boat
brings with it the human factor, which begins destroying the island
with development. Cities and houses and factories and toxic cars pop
up, and the young girl and her companion know they must leave to save
the island. They are joined by Cat, who waves farewell as the animals
begin to return to their normal pastimes.
Along this journey we see strange and wonderful puppets that are
operated in many different styles of puppeteering, from giant monsters
guided by five puppeteers — one for the head, one for the body,
one for each hand, and one for the tail — to eighteen-foot-high
people whose puppet masters walk on stilts. These monsters — a
dragon, a hungry black beast, the monster made of trash — are
huge, taking up the entirety of the stage, and are so beautifully crafted
that even the smallest children are not afraid of them. And there are
children everywhere, completely rapt by the tale they are seeing. A
full score of puppeteers are needed in order to complete the show,
including the authors of the work, Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger.
The remainder of the “cast” consists of puppeteers from
pre-teen to adult, each of whom is learning a long-revered means of
storytelling. Even with a house so immense as Forest Theater, the opening
night show was full, and children of all ages oohed and aahed over
the complex and beautiful puppets.
While this work is a bit heavy handed, in a time when oil is pumping
into the Gulf of Mexico and cities are becoming cesspools of trash,
it is a welcome and important wake-up call. It is important in that
it instills in children as young as five the importance of taking care
of the earth; that it is not a commodity to be consumed but a home
to be taken care of. This unique and well-presented puppet show for
all ages gives us all the hope that, if we do our part, the part we
were given to live in will remain. But only if.