at the Logan Square Auditorium, December 8-10
Last weekend, in the midst of bitter cold, persistent wind, and thickening snow, the Logan Square community celebrated the coming of spring at Redmoon’s Winter Pageant. Chicago’s most prolific people’s theater has staged this spectacle yearly since 1991, using large, inventive puppets; a circus orchestra chanting and moaning out vocals and playful harmonies; and a growing group of artists, families, and Logan Square residents. Last year’s pageant was a whimsical, confusing celebration of city life, with moments of brilliance that foreshadowed this year’s extraordinary visual and musical quilt, directed by Molly Ross. Clearly Redmoon is developing a precise, imagistic narrative fluency out of its community-based “cheap art” philosophy of puppets and spectacle.
The original ideas this year came from memories of the Great Depression written by a group of senior citizens at the Copernicus Senior Center. Redmoon took some of their characters and descriptions of the early Logan Square neighborhood to support increasingly fantastic scenes leading the players and the audience from winter to the hope of spring. The pageant started simply enough: a juggling act entertained the growing crowd of children and adults while two janitors in Redmoon’s trademark larger-than-life masks swept the stage and pointed at particularly noisy people. Soon a ghostly white paper train entered, glowing from the candles suspended within it, and set the scene for the dreamlike images to come. Some of the Copernicus Center writers played passengers, who unbuckled their suitcases and handed over a golden bucket, umbrella, and flower to small children in the cast. Then the train moved on, the holy relics or prizes were held aloft, and the stories began, told through images, symbols, fragments of narrative, and music.
First we saw the writers’ work in words sewn on cloth. A huge, gentle-looking woman/puppet on stilts stripped off her skirts to reveal quilts with embroidered sentences; these came to life as the stage filled with masked, tense, hungry-looking adults; workers selling ice, coal, milk, and rags; and playful children wearing large cardboard mittens and stiff, cartoonish scarves. The boundaries of the neighborhood were maintained by four brightly painted rolling doors, which teased the rag-and-tin peddler by opening only to reveal another closed door. Finally, the doors chased him around the stage, leaving him to sleep exhausted and alone in the cold street.
This peddler became both onstage witness and narrator for the dreamlike visual poems created by the puppets (built by dozens of people listed in the program). Janitors became angels by strapping on feathery paper wings; a flock of giant migratory birds with intriguingly malevolent expressions swept through the space while a woman talked about walking in crepe shoes; an insectile drum machine piloted by two performers marched loudly across the stage and battled with itself in booming rhythms. Most remarkable were the crowd of well-dressed, gray-masked women who gossiped and muttered about the sleeping peddler, then turned to face the audience and opened their coats to reveal huge breasts and pregnant bellies. Each belly had a door that opened to show a tiny scene, stories within stories: a man fishing for a restless fish; children sledding, ice-skating, or making snow angels; a fire escape with clothes blowing in the wind.
Migrating birds, paper snowstorms, and seasonal dioramas in this labor-intensive collaboration traced the change of seasons in a neighborhood. The final maypole dance around a rickety model of the Logan Square eagle monument was introduced by a shuffling, candlelit procession of the Chicago skyline, paper buildings that played hide-and-seek with Spring–played by a child who held the train scene’s golden flower. After the May ribbons were woven around the monument, the children ran pell-mell around it, and the audience clapped and hooted. The performers bowed, cookies and juice were offered, and it was back to winter after a rare and welcome break from the world of linear time and literal space.