Review: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

A scene from Heather Henson’s “Ajijaak on Turtle Island.” (Photo courtesy of the production)


Where: Locations all over Chicago
When: through Jan. 27
Tickets: free-$40
Contact: 312-753-3234,

Theater Critic

The third biennial Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival kicked off Jan. 17 with IBEX Puppetry’s “Ajijaak on Turtle Island” at the Studebaker Theater, and the hour-long, family-friendly show epitomized the fest at its entertaining and educational best.

Created by puppet artist Heather Henson, daughter legendary Jim Henson, and written and co-directed by Ty Defoe of the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations of Wisconsin, “Ajijaak” draws on Ojibwe, Lakota, and Cherokee lore to tell the story of a young crane who must face her first migration on Turtle Island (North America) alone after a fire separates her from her parents. As she travels from Canada to the Gulf Coast, she gains strength from her song and learns from four-legged and two-legged creatures along the way. The main lesson is one we’d all do well to remember: It is essential to respect the earth and environment and give back as much as we take.

Half-a-dozen Native American performers–Tony Enos, Joan Henry, Wen Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore, and Henu Josephine Tarrant—deftly combine delightful puppetry with indigenous songs and dances to tell the tale in a homespun fashion augmented by a fair amount of audience participation. Memorable moments include the baby crane emerging from her egg and her encounters with an ingeniously engineered deer, buffalo crafted from ersatz prairie grass, and a wily coyote with more than a whiff of corn, as well as with graceful cranes swooping overhead, turtles both large and small, and a fearsome monster that lives under the water and is aroused when we abuse nature.

The projection design by Katherine Freer really helps bring the story to life. Credit also goes to scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader, lighting designer Marika Kent, costume designer Lux Haac, sound designer Emma Wilk (though the narrator was hard to hear at times), aerial designer and fabricator Curtiss Lee Mitchell, and the puppet design and fabrication by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop™.

The short run of “Ajijaak on Turtle Island” has ended, but the puppet fest offers a total of more than 100 performances, so there’s still plenty to see in the last five days. Here are a few highlights.

• “How to Build a Flying Machine” by Jesse Mooney-Bullock Moonbull Studio, Jan. 23 at the Theater on the Lake. Developed at the University of Chicago, where puppeteer Mooney-Bullock was artist-in-residence, the show mixes wooden rod puppets, Bunraku puppetry, miniatures and more to recount the triumphs and failures of the Wright Brothers. You watch them use their ingenuity to assemble airplanes in real time.

• “Arde Brillante en los Bosques de la Noche” (“Burning Bright in the Forest of the Night”), Jan. 24-27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Argentine theater artist and director Mariano Pensotti fuses puppetry, live theater, and film to weave together the stories of three women inspired by the Soviet revolution, an exhausted Russian history professor, a guerrilla fighter who returns home to find that much has changed, and a journalist who receives an unexpected promotion. They explore government control and the limits of resistance, asking if they are spectators or participants in their country’s history.

• “L’après-midi d’un foehn version 1” (“Afternoon of a Fawn”) by Compagnie Non Nova, Jan. 23-27 at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. Turns out flimsy plastic shopping bags are good for more than polluting the environment! This French company transforms them into anthropomorphic figures who execute a beautiful ballet.

• “Suspended Animation” by The Huber Marionettes, Jan. 25-27 at the Beverly Arts Center. Master puppeteer Phillip Huber, the genius behind the puppets in “Being John Malkovich,” shows off the range of his art form with amazing acrobatics and musical numbers using full-body puppets operated with control bars that manipulate eight-to-sixteen strings at a time.

In the neighborhood, you can catch “Atalanta,” a work-in-progress by Leslie Danzig and Jessica Thebus that uses puppetry, circus arts, and physical theater to adapt the myth of the athlete for our times, at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts Jan. 24. 26, and 27, and the free Festival Neighborhood Tour’s “The Beginning of Nothing” and “Punchinella” at the Experimental Station Jan. 27.