Hamlet

Janni Younge's "Hamlet" at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, 740 E. 56th Pl., Jan. 26-29.  

The fifth Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, billed as the largest fest of its kind in North America, takes place all over the city Jan. 18-29 and promises to be more diverse and exciting than ever.

Puppet acts and artists representing 10 countries — Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Norway, Japan, South Africa, Spain and the United States — are scheduled to present more than 100 performances ranging from solo shows to full-scale productions at everything from intimate storefronts to the Loop’s Studebaker Theater.

The 600-seat Studebaker in the historic Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., hosts the opening-night extravaganza Jan. 18, which features the Chicago premiere of Plexus Polaire's “Moby Dick” flanked by pre- and post- show receptions. Artistic director Yngvild Aspeli's 100-minute interpretation of Herman Melville's masterpiece, straight from Norway and France, brings together seven actors, 50 puppets, video projections on smoke, an octobass (like a very large double bass) and a life-size whale to recount the tale of a disastrous sea voyage and dive into the mysteries of life. It will be repeated Jan. 20 and 21.

The Studebaker also is home to the fest closer, Manual Cinema's “Frankenstein,” Jan. 27-29. As Court theatergoers may recall from the world premiere there in Nov. 2018, the collective's version interweaves the original gothic novel with the biography of its author, Mary Shelley, to tell an innovative story about the beauty and horror of creation. For those unfamiliar with Manual Cinema, the five founding artists use shadow puppetry, actors, cinematic techniques like vintage overhead projectors and multiple screens, multi-channel sound design and live music to transform the experience of watching a film.

This is the first time that the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival is returning as an annual event (rather than a biennial one), and a new Pop-Up Puppet Hub includes site-specific attractions in several spaces in the Fine Arts Building.

Among them are the Spoke & Bird Pop-Up Cafe (Suite 433) serving coffee, tea, winter soups and baked goods in a cozy, puppet-inspired setting; “Vancouver” (Suite 433) showcasing various aspects of the eponymous made-for-film puppet theater collaboration with M-Yi Theater Company; “Motel” (suite 403), Dan Hurlin's remarkable installation of a half-scale cheap motel room built inside a wooden touring crate, and two photo exhibits, the Jim Henson Foundation's “American Puppet Theater Today: The Photography of Richard Termine” (Suite 410) and “The Art of Basil Twist” (Suite 404).

Speaking of award-winning third-generation master puppeteer Basil Twist, whose many, many projects include designing the puppetry for the Joffrey Ballet's “The Nutcracker” (think lively rats scurrying all over), his first full-length film, “Symphonie Fantastique,” is being screened at the Studebaker on Jan, 24. Filmed in 2018 at the HERE Arts Center in NYC with live accompaniment by Christopher O'Riley playing the Liszt piano transcription of Berlioz's 1830 symphony, it unfolds entirely in and around a 1,000-gallon water tank. Twist and Italian film artisans edited and refined the film, which had its world premiere at the 2019 World Puppetry Festival in Charleville Mézières, France, 21 years after his live version made its debut.

Twist's “Dogugaeshi” is on the bill in Hyde Park at the Logan Center for the Arts Jan. 26-29. The Chicago premiere, described as an “intimate, abstract, contemporary journey of images and emotions,” blends a rare Japanese sliding screen stage technique with Twist’s perceptions from encounters with the remaining rural practitioners of this once popular art form. The show features original compositions for the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed plucked instrument, created and performed live by master musicians Yumiko Tanaka and Yoko Reikano Kimura.

Also in the neighborhood, South African artist Janni Younge's new adaptation of Shakespeare's “Hamlet” has its U.S. premiere at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, 740 E. 56th Pl., Jan. 26-29. Returning after her hit co-production of Toni Morrison's “The Bluest Eye” at the museum during last year's fest, Younge uses beautifully crafted life-size puppets and humans to explore the complex psychological facets of humanity facing an onslaught of challenges.

The fest's other Shakespeare offering is “Macbeth Muet” at the Chopin Theatre Basement (not accessible) Jan. 23-25. La Fille du Laitier, a traveling Montreal theater, totally deconstructs the Bard's tragedy into fast-paced wordless experience using the body, objects as imagery and a ton of fake blood. Entire scenes are reduced to a single look, and Shakespeare’s poetry is rendered mute but searing.

“Anywhere,” a landmark string-marionette work created by the French company Théâtre de l’Entrouvert and inspired by Henry Bauchau’s novel “Oedipus on the Road,” takes over the Chopin Theatre mainstage Jan. 19-22. A marionette made of ice is the fallen Oedipus as he wanders accompanied by his daughter, Antigone, eventually melting into a mist and disappearing into the forest, ending a poetic journey that highlights our fragility. Following its debut, the Chicago puppet festival plans to tour the work nationally with a U.S.-based ensemble.

At the Harold Washington Library Jan. 22-24, you can see designer-director Theodora Skipitares' “Grand Panorama,” which focuses on Frederick Douglass's obsession with photography, illuminating the power of image to “tell the truth” about humanity and the African-American experience during slavery. Showcasing her trademark larger-than-life size puppets, Skipitares blends artforms with panorama, magic lantern and shadow theater to articulate Douglass’s belief that “Rightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama.” Brittany Harris performs the music by Mazz Swift.

Of the all-ages programs, several of which are at the Chicago Children's Theatre, Naive Theater of Czechia's “Choo, Choo, Whistle. Woof!” Jan. 25-29 sounds especially charming. It's a tabletop classic love story: dog meets dog, dog loses dog — and hopefully finds her again.

In addition to these and a number of other productions, you can also take in the free neighborhood tour of “My Night in the Planetarium” to four locations including ETA Creative Arts Foundation on the South Side, the raunchy late-night puppet cabaret “Nasty, Brutish & Short” at Links Hall and the free Ellen Van Volkenberg Puppetry Symposium at the Studebaker on both festival Saturdays. While you're there, don't miss Exile in Bookville's (Suite 210) special display of books on puppetry. 

Unless otherwise specified, all venues are wheelchair accessible. For a complete schedule and tickets, visit chicagopuppetfest.org.

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