Urban Dream Capsule

at Sears on State


Theater Oobleck

at Live Bait Theater

Echo Trace

at the Storefront Theater

Combustible Puppet Cabaret

at the Storefront Theater

By Justin Hayford

“Welcome, puppet fans!” bellowed Jim Law, head of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, from atop a makeshift stage on the sidewalk outside the new downtown Sears. Beneath him a restless lunchtime crowd battled for position with camera crews, who seemed to believe this patch of State Street was their personal fiefdom. Everyone had assembled to watch four 40-ish Australian guys with bald heads, Seussian chenille suits, and unceasingly goofy attitudes take up residence in four huge windows in the store, set up as bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The only amenity the performers lacked was privacy, though the glass shower door was painted to conceal their nether parts and the toilet was conveniently hidden from view.

The men have been doing their mediagenic performance piece Urban Dream Capsule in cities around the world since 1996. They live in their enormous fish tank for two weeks, but if it’s an endurance test it’s pretty cushy: they sit around a huge, well-appointed, air-conditioned, fully stocked apartment for 14 days with no particular demands on their time. And what it has to do with puppetry is anyone’s guess.

At slightly before noon on the 12th, the Urban Dream team moved in. While music blared, they cut shapes out of tissue paper taped to the glass–a heart, a circle, the Sears Tower–affording them the opportunity to poke their heads through and proffer big, silly grins. Then they tore down the rest of the paper to reveal the colorful apartment. Dancing around, they high-fived each other, pulled faces, wrote messages to the crowd on dry-erase boards, and generally demonstrated how desperate they were to capture the attention of people with nothing else to watch anyway.

Somebody in charge decided that Urban Dream Capsule should kick off “Puppetropolis Chicago,” this year’s international festival of puppet theater, and from a publicity standpoint they were right: the Urban Dream boys drew every local news station and ended up in a half-page spread in USA Today. But without any inclination on the performers’ parts to manipulate objects, themselves, or one another in even a tangentially puppetlike manner, they may as well have been kicking off a home-decorating convention for the attention starved. When I headed back to my office after a tedious hour on the sidewalk, the Dream Capsulers were still mugging, and I wondered if at some point they’d manage to squeeze some art out of their stunt.

Later that week, far on the other side of our Puppetropolis–so far, in fact, that it’s not included in any of the official festival schedules–some interesting artists wrestled with actual ideas, not to mention actual puppets. Theater Oobleck’s newest piece, Tedium, is beguiling. Unfortunately, the puppetry is its weakest element.

Like everything else Oobleck cofounder Mickle Maher has written for the stage in the last few years, the 45-minute Tedium is an unassuming gem. The plot concerns a struggling avant-garde theater company coerced by its least talented member, Greg, into mounting his new play. Populated by slow-moving performers wearing bunchy green unitards and silver medallions, Greg’s hollow, pretentious, nonsensical work drags on for eight hours–and becomes an enormous box office hit. The reason is simple if bizarre: at the same two points in this excruciating show, everyone in the audience is overwhelmed with a powerful sense of deja vu.

With his usual rigor, Maher puts the intellectual screws to his fanciful premise. Can theater ever provide a unified experience to diverse audience members? Do moments seem transcendent only against a backdrop of tedium? Can we truly know what happens between performers and audience members any more than we can know what happens between two people making love? As Maher twists his way through a dozen unforeseeable complications of Greg’s newfound success, these and other inquiries surface with delightful unpredictability. Maher writes with an intentionally bumbling grace reminiscent of Gogol, and his reading is just as adept: sitting at a tiny table stage left, he captures every nuance.

The effortless richness of Maher’s reading makes the simultaneous puppetry (by Victoria Kallay, Tony Macaluso, and Dan Telfer) seem clumsy and peripheral. The puppeteers are hard-pressed to imbue their foot-high figures with lifelike qualities, let alone personalities. When not struggling with their puppets, they play the characters themselves, creating a confused relationship between puppet and puppeteer. More problematically, the action tends to illustrate a story that’s already crystal clear, setting up a competitive rather than complementary relationship between reading and puppetry. The puppeteers don’t stand a chance.

The agitprop Oobleckers may not know much about puppetry, but they don’t fare much worse than the supposed puppet veterans in Heather Henson’s hour-long Echo Trace, made up of four short pieces. In fact, much of Henson’s work is as empty and self-indulgent as the eight-hour play Oobleck satirizes.

She doesn’t seem to have inherited much of the ingenuity or craft of her father, Jim Henson–or any of his humor. A program note says she’s attempting a “query into universal rhythm and an individual’s place within that realm.” Her method is to obsess over an organic shape that looks like a leaf or half of a yin-yang symbol. In the rough black-and-white animation “Flow,” which opens the evening, the shape becomes a bird and then a fish and then some more birds and then a bunch more fish. Then the bird catches the fish. The end.

Henson, Kate Artibee, and Kristin Miller, who perform “Echo Trace,” begin by peeling the skin off a suspended glowing orb–moving in that semislow motion actors adopt when they want to make some mundane action look significant–while droning aaaahhhhs and staring into space. The skin comes off in pieces shaped like the animated bird-fish, and for the next 30 minutes the women dance with these shapes–and with smaller, larger, and illuminated versions of them–doing various bird- and fishlike things. Finally the bird catches the fish. The end.

With no meaningful structure and only high-school-level choreography, “Echo Trace” resorts to unimaginative action: the performers turn themselves into birds or fish–or occasional four-footed creatures–then walk in big circles. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, they walk back and forth. They maintain stoic faces throughout, perhaps hoping to give this humorless puffery some gravity. And just when you think things couldn’t be any more embarrassing, they start making bird noises at one another.

Initially quite beautiful, the images lose their fascination after being dragged around the stage for five minutes. Given the elaborate technical design and impressive original score, somebody must have dumped some serious cash into this production. It’s a shame none of it was spent coming up with ideas.

By the 14th the Urban Dreamers had changed out of their chenille suits and into shorts and Hawaiian shirts. When I stopped by during my lunch break, they were sitting around the living room, taking turns doing silly dances for the ever present mob. They’d added a few decorating touches, placing feathers around a mirror and planting bits of grass in the bathroom, but there was still no discernible art to be found.

Puppet festivals may entice with displays of skill or high-tech visual spectacle–or chuckleheads living in store windows. But no performers are ever quite so captivating as the band of hippie freaks who imagine that little people on the ends of sticks will bring global capitalism to its knees. They’re out in full force in “Combustible Puppet Cabaret,” a refreshing mosh pit of disorderly but authentic art. Hosted opening weekend by the toxically insincere Paul Zaloom (and next weekend by the charmingly human Jessica Thebus), the show tosses together short pieces by different artists, most leaning just to the left of Abbie Hoffman.

The cabaret features a different lineup each weekend, with Chicago’s Dubya-hating collective Environmental Encroachment acting as “house band” (in truth, they sit in a pile stage right and noodle on drums and other instruments as if they were killing time back at the co-op). Highlights from opening weekend included Chicagoan Laura Heit and her Matchbox Shows, performed on tiny stages made from real matchboxes and simulcast on a video screen. With childlike simplicity and an arresting nonchalance, Heit offers 30-second vignettes that make Mr. Bill seem positively rococo. In one, based on a play Heit wrote with a friend in third grade, a fairy turns a little girl’s doll into a sausage. In another, various critters and people run out of a burning forest. In another segment, Heit shows us 27 tiny drawings of herself naked while bowling, sleeping, pooping, thinking, and having dinner with her parents.

More typical of the event was Montreal’s Petit Theatre de l’Absolut and its Paris in the 19th Century, Part IV: La Commune. Four performers erect a dollhouse-size stage and lead the audience through a speedy history of the founding of the Paris Commune. Unabashedly schlocky and unpolished, the piece draws much of its humor from its own clunkiness, but it’s also deeply felt: they may reduce the greatest socialist triumph in Europe to Cliffs Notes, but they also marvel at its scope and feel a twinge of guilt at their own inertia. As one performer comments near the end, global capitalist forces are poised to destroy the planet and all he can do is throw rocks at Starbucks.

The cabaret is decidedly hit-and-miss–and on opening night the hits seemed confined to the first act, making for a trying late-night show. But it offers an edifying glimpse into the souls of performers who’ve linked their political philosophies with their artistic lives. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, these puppeteers are unapologetically idealistic, and they display enough ingenuity to convince even the jaded that cultural insurrectionists can thrive in commodified times.

Last Saturday at midnight–five days into their two-week event–the Urban Dreamers seemed tired and cranky but valiantly kept performing for the crowd, which seemed never to disperse. If nothing else, these guys were proving they could draw an audience. Like “Cows on Parade,” they were offering a bright, friendly, irrelevant intrusion into daily life. And Sears was getting a nice plug out of the whole thing. The Urban Dream Capsule press kit even included a fact sheet about the merchandise: fine jewelry on the main floor, intimate apparel on the second, “tool territory” on the third.

Fluxus artists living in gallery windows 30 years ago, on the other hand, did it in cramped, amenity-free spaces tied to art rather than commerce. And watching the Australians I couldn’t help but think of the 1994 piece Tragedy, in which Mathew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez lived and performed in the Blue Rider Theatre for seven days, staging enigmatic events until they could barely stand up. Like the Urban Dreamers, they included daily rituals in their work, dragging their beds center stage and sleeping under spotlights. But they also pushed themselves to create a meaningful, unified event, while the Urban Dreamers seem content to dally.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephanie Howard/Glenn Turner.