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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The 10th Annual Northwestern Toy Theater Festival

Or: Minerva in the Minutia

The idea of a toy theater comes from the Victorian era, and like most things of age it can be described as “quaint” “morbid” “unwieldy” and utterly fascinating. After a night at the theater an individual could purchase a box containing little paper and cloth cutouts of the scenery, the costumes, the character sketches of the production to be mounted in a tiny theater, perhaps in the parlor or nursery, where the play could be reenacted (or reimagined) in miniature for as long as anyone pleased.

This year seven storytellers have slaved and ached and puzzled their puzzlers to create theatrical spectaculars at both the simplest and most intricate levels. It’s unfairly indescribable. So many times was my mind blown that my little grey cells have speckled the Wallis theater ceiling to floor. And now the memories of this plot twist and that bit of stage magic is sloshing out of the exit wound (not dangerous but very, very painful). Even as I write this the sets are being boxed up, the scripts tossed on the rubbish pile, the little puppets dismembered, and the cast and crew off to celebrate the offing spring with liquor. And soon there will be nothing here to tell, or to help me (selfishly) recreate what happened here and what was done. Time ambles on and the rose shrivels on the vine and memories curl up like sun-blasted leaves. All I can do now is stir the remaining puddle of my wits in the crater of my memory and see what surfaces.

A Cowboy Song: by Aaron Snook

Lit by a heard of electronic tea candles and tasting all over of bourbon, cigaret smoke, and tears Snook’s melancholy cowboy opera describes the adventures of The Stranger fleeing his murderous past and meeting a mysterious ne’erdowell “Kid” who lures him to a life of crime. True, the actors are papermache puppets, and the empty skies and vista’s of the west are painted on an amusing cyclotron, but A Cowboy Song is still a moving drama. The four part ballad (containing a great deal of clever card metaphors) provides the laundry line for Snook to hang his surprisingly intricate puppetry antics. An exercise in revelation, Cowboy Song, continually surprises us in its images and twists both unexpected and inevitable.

Hamlin: by Jerrell. L Henderson

Deliberately shaky and two demential as its visuals are what strikes the viewer of Hamlin is the quality of its jazz; at once muscular and voluptuous. It provides the poll around which Henderson lets his plot contort. Hamlin is a town of vice and negotiable affection suffering from a plague of grinning, bowler hatted rats who’s main annoyance seem to be taking up the best seats in the houses of negotiable affection. The mayor and council first attempt to contract the mysterious pied piper (Henderson himself) first by payment and then by threats, but when the deal goes south it is the town which must pay the greatest price. Concocted on an old school projector and a white sheet Hamlin’s visual elements are at times laughably cut rate (there only being so much you can do with a laminated image pushed about the lighted square of a projector). But Henderson’s Piper, graceful down to his toenails and remarkably full of expression for a walking shadow, shimmering across the screen and anchors the world about his commanding movements.

Imagine: by Lindsey Lyddan

A mountain of boxes, a great range of them rise up in front of our view, stacked and plain and orderly as can be. But from a dozen false fronts and hidden valleys rise or spring out cuttings of Shel Silverstein’s famous illustrations. Lyddan’s recorded voice, reading the favored childhood poems with an easy, melancholy slowness belies the ingenuity of her hidden cavities or the urgency in which she and her team scamper like bandits through their inaccessible range.

All this is impressive and “cute”, but not terribly moving. Not until for her final segment “the snowman”, does Lyddan herself swing out to directly handle the last story of the sad lump of ice trying to make it to July. By revealing her own sad serenity as she walks the snowman and the robin through their bleak, rhyming conversation and marking her creations sudden and rather damp end, Lyddan brings Silverstein’s story to us directly, as though to say that no amount of ingenuity or artistic skill reaches its full potential until it is willingly shared with its audience.

That Same Family Story: by Lauren Shouse

Taking a leaf from Lyddan’s tree Shouse chooses to serve her story up personally, hot and steaming on the holiday table. We have caught her in preparing to host her parents and troubled brother Chandler and she introduces us to each family member by means of placemat, drink of preference, and a few choice words. She then embarks on telling and retelling the same family story that is told and retold every gathering about how little Lauren, according to who tells the tale, took amusement from, averted, or maliciously instigated Chandler’s near drowning. These stories, with their evidence, are divertingly illuminated under the tablecloth by some shadow puppetry, sometimes charmingly basic and other times wittingly complex. But when the old myth takes on a sudden, very frightening and intense, reality, we are gobsmacked and shamed by how important this tired old tale can be to the family involved.

Just Another Love Story: by Maya Michele Fein

Invited into a recreated bedroom we nestle down, like invisible little people to watch as the recumbent Fein reads to herself a series of chapters of a romance placed in the lovely land of make believe but increasingly seen to be the readers own romantic romance. Spelled about by a gentle voiced narrator, we see the outlines of the prince, princess, and their collective adventures are superimposed upon the page. As worrisome as it may be to see books so cut and altered, the loss is well worth the welcome surprise as Fein’s fine craft paints picturesque, hybrid illustrations and even produces props from the pages. As the love story takes more serious and disturbing turns however, and the picturesque shifts to blood chilling, we feel that each page drives a nail deeper into our hearts, an inch for the thousands of other ‘love stories’ that have turned out just like this one. Though the most political of the toy theater presentations, Just Another Love Story never sacrifices its nature as a narrative or the disquieting power it contains; just as we cannot see Fein’s face from our angle of unsettled repose but can feel her distress and injury.

Moon Language: by Carolyn Sullivan

I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea what on earth Sullivan was about. Silent, save for a melodic, though extremely cryptic, revery at start and close Sullivan’s story of an old man sunk in drink and depression through fantastic nautical dreams is a sloshing wash of drear and peaceful visual and auditory stimuli. It’s difficult to untangle and provokes such potent tranquility as to discourage such dissection. It is undoubtedly, however, among the most fantastically detailed puppet shows you’ve ever had the good fortune to see. Done with two demential images in the traditional puppet theater style the whole affair takes on the splendor of an animated film (french, for taste). Sullivan’s inspired angles, her magnetized props floating up from the slit-like pit or down from paper thin flies, her hidden images waiting to be illuminated, and whole sets and vistas serendipitously assembled before our eyes, would drive the audience to mass ooh’s and awws and I’m sure several feats of spontaneous applause were we not so drugged and lotus-bit, by the broken reflection of the story.

The Nightingale by Shawn Ketchum Johnson

After an evening of technical genius and ever more elaborate presentations we were slightly put off by Ketchum Johnson’s graceless entrance with only two tool boxes, a bristling attitude nourished from the fertile soil of perpetual exhaustion and a declaration that no, contrary to our expectations, he wasn’t going to build us anything, he does too much building thank you very much. Little did we know that behind that tight ship character lay the greatest wonder in an evening of wonders. In the midst of his quiet diatribe about his tech-heavy, downtrodden fate Ketchum Johnson began, almost against his will, to relate his fascination with the Hans Christian Anderson fable “The Nightingale” about the friendship between Emperor of China and the unsophisticated forest bird who gives the sweetest melody.

In order to illustrate the tale our narrator, now fizzing with creativity and a desire to get his story and his thoughts out, began harvest the items in his tool kits as an orchestra. Clicking chain links become the nightingales distant chirps, a rotating socket wrench the chorus of frogs, a whole toolbox, flipped and flung becomes the Grand Chamberlin crashing through the trees in search of the little bird. But rather than see the story through to its familiar end Ketchum Johnson pauses, turning over and over the thought of the Chamberlin, this Big Wig, this man of power who doesn’t even know what a bird sounds like, out in the world discovering unadorned beauty for the first time.

That is the image, the story within the story that sets our taciturn, now exuberant teacher alight. He juggles his improvised orchestra, hands out his tools to his audience to help carry on its rhythm and soon sets out to find other sounds. He cavorts all over the Wallis, all about the other Toy Sets, even scampering up the walls and leaping from breaker to ledge to standing cabinet. He’s gone through a change of personality only possible in the narrative world, a transformation from a tired schlepper into a man finding glory in every sound and sight, every stretch of his limbs and mind. He doesn’t have to build anything, he makes the world his toy, becoming a minor god, a lord of little things. And he has lifted us along behind him, our minds blown open by admiration our hearts filled with wonder.

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