The 14th-century Libro del Buen Amor is required reading for Puerto Rican high school students. Similar in structure and tone to The Canterbury Tales, the work by Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hita, is made up of 12 poems, each describing a different love affair. Beatriz Santiago remembered the hefty tome as “kind of boring.” But revisiting it as an adult she found it “very funny, almost pornographic. It doesn’t sound medieval–it talks a lot about sex. It’s reading something from hundreds of years ago and seeing that people were worried about getting laid. It’s a long treatise on love, but emphasizes all those things that are the flesh.”
Santiago and her partner in love and art, David Bat-Cheat, decided to adapt the Libro del Buen Amor for the debut production of their puppet theater company, Teatro Maldito (“Damned Theater”). The couple live in Puerto Rico, but their dramatic roots are in the Chicago theater scene.
Bat-Cheat, pronounced “baht she-aht,” grew up on the North Shore as David Buchen and started acting with Theater Oobleck in the late 80s. He juggled jobs as an English teacher, taxi driver, and coat checker to make ends meet while performing in Oobleck’s avant-garde takes on society and politics. In 1991 he met Blair Thomas, who had recently created Redmoon Theater, and soon Bat-Cheat was helping to build sets for and occasionally performing in the company’s puppet spectaculars. He spent summers with Vermont’s Bread & Puppet Theater, bringing back certain ideas he’d picked up there. He had always known the greatest statements could be made on the cheap. “There was a bowling pin that appeared in like three different Oobleck shows,” Bat-Cheat says. “People just kept on writing parts for that bowling pin.”
Bat-Cheat was playing the clarinet in the klezmer band Shloinke when he met Santiago at a 1994 barbecue in Palmer Square. A native of San Juan, Santiago had just graduated from the University of Chicago and was starting on her master’s degree in video at the School of the Art Institute. She’d never worked with puppets before, but by 1997 she and Bat-Cheat were collaborating on The Ballad of Labor and Capital; Santiago painted a 60-foot-long moving scroll to illustrate the story line. They performed it at Redmoon and Oobleck as well as outside of a subway stop in the Loop.
Last year Santiago was pining for Puerto Rico and Bat-Cheat decided to move back with her. “It forced me to learn Spanish,” he says, and he began by reading the Spanish translation of A Thousand and One Nights. On a trip to Paris last May, they happened on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1974 version of the work, Arabian Nights. “It was the worst print in the world,” recalls Santiago. Still, she and Bat-Cheat were strangely affected by the film.
They moved to San Juan a month later. She took a job teaching, he sold his original wood and linoleum prints, and they constructed lots of puppets together. Life slowed down a bit there: “Not a whole lot of friends,” Bat-Cheat says. “So we spent a few months going to the video store every night and were pretty much blown away by Pasolini–just the faces of people, you see images of people you’ve never seen in other movies.” They particularly admired his characters–pimps, prostitutes, and other castoffs of society. “He didn’t portray them as heroes, but still made them admirable,” Bat-Cheat says.
Consequently, he says, there’s a strong Pasolini influence in Libro del Buen Amor. “I think it’s more a style thing than anything else,” says Bat-Cheat, “combining left-wing politics with questions of desire and questions of sex and intimacy.” One character, a ten-foot-tall papier-mache puppet called Love, operated by Bat-Cheat, advises the archpriest, played by Oobleck’s Jeff Dorchen, on matters of the heart.
Bat-Cheat and Santiago finished constructing Love a few days ago but will have to do some tweaking before their flight to Chicago. “We are cutting him up into little pieces,” says Santiago. “Love alone is going to take up two suitcases.”
Libro del Buen Amor opens the second annual Chicago Puppetry Festival this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 7. This year’s festival features 20 acts and runs through next weekend at Link’s Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield. See the Section Two theater listings for offerings and show times. Tickets are $10; call 773-281-0824 for reservations.