Chi-Town Puppet Theatre

at Bailiwick Repertory

Although Jim Henson created the Muppets, he always shared the credit with his collaborator Frank Oz, better known as the voice of Bert, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, and many other Muppets. “Frank is the one who makes the Muppets funny,” Henson would say. And he was not being unduly modest, for he recognized that the success of the Muppets was due not just to their comical appearance, but also to the witty way they were animated. No matter how cleverly constructed a puppet is, it still needs an interesting personality if it’s going to entertain an audience. As any actor knows, a costume never gives a great performance. The Chi-Town Puppet Theatre demonstrates the truth of this with two shows running in repertory at the Saturday/Sunday Puppet Theatre at Bailiwick.

The puppets in both shows are attractive. Roscoe, the first character to appear in Step 2 Review, is a little man, about three-quarters life size, who wears a red clown nose and a little derby held on with Velcro. Edwin Owl, who follows him, has large eyes that blink. And Thea the Mermaid is a cartoonish figure with a mouth that opens into a gaping cavern when she sings. In Eagle Feather, which alternates with Step 2 Review, the puppets have striking faces that resemble the primitive masks Picasso incorporated into Les demoiselles d’Avignon. These puppets are based on the work of contemporary Native American artists, including Daphne Odjig, whose trademark is cubist renderings of traditional Indian designs.

Nevertheless, the way these puppets are used make the two shows drastically different. The characters in Step 2 Review are vapid and lifeless. Those in Eagle Feather are enlivened by the plot conflicts they face; they may not be as exciting as the characters Frank Oz has brought to life, but at least they seem to have a bit of blood flowing through them.

In Step 2 Review the puppeteers, Hugh Manning and Scott Swenson, make the same mistakes that subvert so much children’s theater. First, they talk down to the kids by assuming that anything childish will entertain children, no matter how boring or pointless. So Edwin Owl talks in a cartoon voice but has nothing to say, and Igor (played by Manning, who also serves as the assistant to Swenson in a mundane magic act) tries to hold the audience’s attention by mugging aggressively. Second, the puppeteers do material that is too slow and ponderous for children. For example, the opening bit, in which Roscoe silently causes a silver ball to levitate, lasts too long, and the joke behind the mermaid’s rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” sung by Ethel Merman (Mermaid?), doesn’t make any sense to children.

By contrast, Eagle Feather, adapted by Swenson from a Native American folktale, succeeds by sticking to sound story telling. The story revolves around an Indian boy who must retrieve seven black rocks from the top of a tall mountain in order to become a man. While making the climb, however, he encounters an eagle with a broken wing, and he immediately returns to the village carrying the injured bird. The boy’s father is disappointed that his son failed to reach the mountaintop, and the chief refuses to let him pass into manhood. But when the boy nearly paddles his canoe over a waterfall (with the raging water depicted by billowing blue sheets), the eagle swoops down and saves him.

The staging of the story adds to its appeal. The forest trees are made out of strips of cloth that are pulled up through a hole in the floor of the puppet stage and attached to a wire overhead. The mountain is a sheet that stretches up toward cutout clouds that float by. And the wild animals in the boy’s nightmare are depicted by ingenious cartoon figures fashioned out of simple white wire.

The Chi-Town puppeteers perform in the Japanese Bunraku style, which means they are in full view as they operate the puppets, though they are dressed in black and have black hoods over their faces to make them as inconspicuous as possible. This technique, like the puppets themselves, is effective only when the action of the story draws attention away from the artifice. During Step 2 Review I found myself watching the puppeteers as much as the puppets, and apparently my restlessness wasn’t unusual. Before the show Manning came out and encouraged the children to squirm and wiggle and cough so they wouldn’t have to later on; his request sounded like it was rooted in experience.

No such announcement was made before Eagle Feather, and none was needed. The 45-minute story, performed against a taped sound track featuring the voices of the characters along with original music by Gene DeLuca, managed to hold the attention of the children. Unfortunately my daughter had been so bored by Step 2 Review on Saturday that she decided not to return with me on Sunday to catch Eagle Feather. She thinks she has reached an age when puppets can no longer charm her. Eagle Feather might have changed her mind.