Where: Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Oct. 27
The magic of theater is magnificently on display in “The Table,” the World’s Stage Series season opener at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Created by Great Britain’s Blind Summit Theatre, this 70-minute show consists of one Bunraku-style puppet, one rectangular wood table, and three black-clad puppeteers, but it’s often hilarious, occasionally profound and most remarkable for how completely the puppet comes to life.
As he tells us himself, the puppet —frequently called Moses for his role in a Passover play commissioned for a seder at London’s Jewish Community Centre — is made of little more than cardboard and cloth. Most of his ancestors were boxes, though one aunt was part of a curtain, the curmudgeonly fellow reveals in the gruff voice of Mark Down, who operates his bearded oversize head and one arm. Sean Garratt manipulates the other arm and the bum, given on opening night to seductive gyrations aimed at a woman in the front row. The feet are Irena Stratieva’s domain. However, at some points you’d never know that the humans were in control as Moses drags them all over the stage, while at others he lays bare his vulnerability by having them lie him down on the table.
That table, the puppet’s whole world as he points out, is the subject of much commentary, from musings on the fact that it’s American and he is English to explorations of its dimensions, discussions of the garden he’s planted on it and demonstrations of motorized devices run amok. When he falls off, he’s seriously distressed, but flying through the air — for example, when he’s portraying both God and Moses on Mount Nebo — doesn’t have the same effect.
The biblical story of the prophet’s last 12 hours provides a reference point for meditations on mortality and humanity, but the puppet strays from it more often than not. In fact, he devotes considerable time to outlining the three essentials of puppetry, among them breathing, and his illustrations are delightful, whether or not you’re an aficionado.
He also claims that much of the performance is improvised, but I’m still trying to figure out if that’s true. This may be the reason some parts go on a little too long, but it also may be the cause of wonderful surprises. At the opening show, an audience member who said she was studying puppetry volunteered to stand in when Garratt went off with a ladder (don’t ask), and almost immediately the hand she was working fell off — leading to terrified Moses trying to escape reattachment surgery in a painfully funny scene. Maybe it was impromptu, maybe not. Either way, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.