Winter Pageant

Redmoon Theater, December 31 and January 1

Reviewing Redmoon Theater’s annual Winter Pageant is like critiquing the gay pride parade; if you don’t support it, you feel like a traitor to the community. During its three-year history the pageant has developed a loyal, enthusiastic following, so it was no surprise to see the Logan Square Auditorium packed to the rafters at the opening performance New Year’s Eve. Everyone in the crowd seemed to know everyone else, and no one was in a less than festive mood. Artists networked, young lovers kissed, and grateful mothers chatted while beleaguered fathers chased headstrong children around the room. If you consider that Redmoon’s primary focus “has always been on meaningful interaction with the community through art,” according to the company’s newsletter, then this Winter Pageant was an overwhelming success.

But as a theatrical experience the pageant was muddled and frustratingly thin. The hour-long piece, which employed some inventive puppets, clever costumes, and a cast of 42 adults and children, was so unfocused and cluttered it felt as if it were slapped together at the last minute. In fact, when I entered the auditorium ten minutes before the scheduled curtain, an actor was busily taping up the last piece of brown-wrapping-paper scenery. Before the show began, another piece of scenery started to slip as the duct tape that held it in place gave way. Of course, on some level such hokeyness is intentional. Under Clare Dolan’s direction Redmoon has a self-consciously naive, grade-school aesthetic. Nearly all the costumes are made of cardboard, the set is a series of flats painted in childlike representations of houses, and the “pit orchestra” consists of four guys who seem to have only a passing acquaintance with their instruments.

This lack of pretense, perfectly suited to a community-oriented event, is occasionally the source of genuine humor. It’s the kind of approach that Cook County Theatre Department exploits expertly. But here the general sloppiness makes much of the piece simply unreadable and diminishes the power of the handful of stage images that do develop. The piece has something to do with rebirth and rejuvenation. Drab, lifeless housefronts become brightly colored, thanks to the intervention of a roving band of children. An enormous snake, built like a Chinese dragon, swirls about the stage biting its own tail, turning into the ancient uroboros, symbol of perpetual destruction and regeneration. The piece ends with the appearance of a towering sun figure, its flowing robes engulfing almost the entire stage.

With winter settling in, the theme couldn’t be more inviting, but two major problems weaken the pageantry. The first is a broad, occasionally condescending performance style reminiscent of bad children’s television: the pageant’s default mode seems to be “run in all directions and make a lot of noise.” Whether the performers are children, musicians, or eight-foot insects, Dolan keeps them in a state of almost perpetual motion, and nearly every scene degenerates into chaos. Winter Pageant is no Barney, but still I longed for some subtlety and quiet, which might have allowed the simple honesty of certain moments to sink in. Dolan wants to create a giddy, circuslike atmosphere, populating her stage with neophyte clowns. The impulse is dead-on, but great clowning demands great precision, as artists like Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati have shown. Precision is not this work’s strong suit.

The second, more serious problem is a bad case of Chicago puppeteer-itis. In nearly every Chicago puppet performance I’ve seen, the artists imagine that puppetry begins and ends with the puppet; showing it to the audience and bobbing its head back and forth a few times is apparently more important than giving it life. This deadly sensibility turns almost every scene into an extended bit of show-and-tell. When the truly ingenious eight-foot insects appear, they do a few halfhearted dance steps and then leave. Later, walking pet pigeons around the stage, the insects simply push them around on the ends of sticks for a while. When all the children run onstage with cardboard automobiles on their heads, they do little but mill about in a circle. This inexplicably received a round of applause–the children are darling, but they would be darling doing just about anything.

None of the puppets in the show has any particular sensibility, point of view, or character. The figures generally fail to react, make things happen, or suggest meaningful histories behind the cardboard faces (the lone exception is a truly sublime moment when a half dozen crazed hand puppets literally drag their puppeteers across the floor). Precious few stories, however brief, develop: all too often the puppets are simply trotted out and retired. Each segment remains isolated from the others, and the result is an evening that goes in no discernible direction.

It’s as if the army of Redmoon collaborators spent so much time and energy constructing their elaborate puppets that they didn’t have the time to get to know their own creations intimately. Without such intimacy, the puppets never become animated. The actors end up sharing the stage with cardboard strangers, creating a very hollow sense of community indeed.