Puppet “Living Room Tour” preview

by Anne Spiselman

Puppets are coming to a Hyde Park-Kenwood home near you.


On Nov. 8, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival’s Fall Living Room Tour kicks off in the renovated Queen Anne home of Michelle and Chad McClennan. The evening, one of four to support
the festival and its Free Neighborhood Tour in January 2019, begins with a buffet dinner prepared by the hosts, followed by a performance of “Behold, Where Stands the Usurper’s Cursed Head.”

Written by Mickle Maher and directed by Vanessa Stalling and Frank Maugeri, “Behold” is a 30-minute-long, dystopian tale featuring three puppets as two men and the tyrannical ruler they are trying to stop. They think they have killed him and are dragging him along with them when they discover he isn’t really dead—and have to come up with another solution.

The puppeteer is Samuel Taylor from the Cabinet of Curiosity for whom the show was created. He’s also an associate artist with Lookingglass Theatre Company. Jesse Mooney-Bullock, who won a Jeff Award for his puppets in Paramount Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid,” designed and built the trio for “Behold.”

This isn’t the first Living Room Tour or even the first to visit Hyde Park. Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, originally created the program seven or eight years ago to fund his Blair Thomas & Co. before the biennial puppet fest started in 2015.

“We couldn’t compete with large organizations by holding a big gala, so I was looking for a small alternative way of raising money,” Thomas explains. “Puppetry is a unique art form that historically has played in many types of locations and can have the same scope in a living room as in a theater. The tour is the perfect way to allow people to have a direct and intimate experience with the art they are supporting.”

For the first few years, Thomas says he did one show a month for three or four months, each one a different program in a different home. Then he shifted to the current format: three or four performances of the same show over a single week in different homes. The homes typically accommodate about 40 people at a time, and he estimates that he raises $15,000-$20,000 per tour.

To find volunteers to host the performances, Thomas turns to his donor base and contacts from the festival’s board of directors. He sends out invitations to those with enough space for a small event.

Current Hyde Park co-host Michelle McClennan says she initially got involved when a board member invited her to a Living Room Tour before the first puppet festival in 2015. Then she went to a few fest shows and was so impressed she wanted to be part of it. She prepared food for the 2016 brunch tour in Hyde Park and co-sponsored and April 2018 Living Room Tour performance at the home of her friend, Rita Parida, who is one of her co-hosts this November, along with Kim Ohms and Jane Nicholl Sahlins.

McClennan says that her main takeaway from April, when the show included three short pieces, is that if too many tickets are sold, “comfortable can become cramped,” so she’s happy her house has “good flow.” However, she has been grappling with preparing dishes that people can hold on their laps, because she doesn’t have enough table space for 40 people.

The menu hasn’t been finalized, but the most likely main course choices are a hearty chicken and corn chowder with homemade biscuits and a vegetarian pasta. There also will be a big green salad and, for dessert, individual pumpkin cheesecakes. McClennan says people on the hosting committee probably will bring wine, and there may be a punch or sparkling cider, as well as soda.

While she has no training aside from lessons at The Chopping Block, McClennan says she really enjoys entertaining. She’s also excited to see what Taylor will do. “It’s fun to experience something like a puppet performance in a small venue with like-minded people whether you know them or not,” she says. “You can see the faces and feel the camaraderie.”

*Besides the McClennan house on Nov. 8, the 2018 Living Room Tour includes evening events in private homes in Logan Square and Evanston Nov. 9 and 10, followed by a Nov. 11 Sunday brunch in a turn of the century mansion in Humboldt Park. Tickets to each event are $125 and can be purchased online at www.chicagopuppetfest.org.

The third Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival is slated for January 17-27, 2019 and will feature local, national, and international puppet troupes showcasing an eclectic array of styles, among them marionettes, shadow puppets, Bunraku puppets, tiny toy puppets, and innovative contemporary puppetry at dozens of venues, large and small.

*On Nov.2, at 4:30, at Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Theater East, you can catch one of the classics of Sicilian “Opera dei Pupi: “The Great Duel between Orlando and Rinaldo for the Beautiful Angelica’s Sake.” Performed by the Associazione Figli d’Arte Cuticchio, led by master puppeteer Mimmo Cuticchio, it tells the story of of two men who desert the French army in pursuit of the beautiful princess Angelica, battle with outlandish beasts, challenge each other to a duel, and are only saved from destroying each other by the convenient intervention of an enterprising wizard. As a preview, Cuticchio will give a talk and demonstration tonight (Oct. 31) at 6 at the Italian Cultural Institute,500 N. Michigan Ave, Suite 1450. The events are free but reservations are required. Visit https://cuticchiospettacolo.eventbrite.com or call 312-822-9545.