The Paper Hat Game

Duke Theater Studies
@Sheafer Theater
Through Sept. 18

In recent years there has been much interesting experimentation with video in theatrical productions, but only very recently have cost, craft and imagination coalesced to make the mixture of the hyper-real and the coolly virtual effective on the stage. Duke Theater Studies faculty member Torry Bend, along with video designer Raquel Salvatella, have created a beacon for the new era with their exquisite short “toy theater” work, The Paper Hat Game.

The actors in this play are marionettes, and its setting is the city of Chicago and its elevated train line, the “El.” Mainly used by commuters, the trains are generally filled with individuals sealed in their own glum bubbles. One day a rider with a different attitude changed things (the play is based on the true story of art prankster Scotty Iseri). He plucked a sheet from the pile of discarded newspaper on the seat beside him and made a hat. He put it on and made another, offering it to a fellow passenger. And then another, and another and another. Not everyone wanted to play, but that was fine. Soon Iseri was known around the city as The Paper Hat Guy, who popped up on different trains and made people smile.

Up until the point where something bad happens to The Paper Hat Guy, all the drama is supplied by what we see in the puppet stage/ screen area, which is about the size of a large flat-panel TV. The artists have used newspaper as the substrate for drawings and as wrapping for some of the cardboard relief and sculptural forms (trains, bridges, street grids), and combined video of these made objects with the actual objects, plus video of human action, plus live action (e.g., hands folding hats) overlaid on the video, to astonishing effect. Even leaving out the wonderfully articulated and visually expressive marionettes, the visual effects are fantastic. They play with scale and points of view in a marvelously fluid way, thanks to the video. Recorded ambient sound, conversation and commentary augment and clarify what we see, although the visuals remain secondary. I can’t emphasize enough the deep satisfaction provided by the beautiful craft of this hybrid production.

All this, and there is a story, too. A real story, with inexplicable cruelty, struggle and loss, and an ambiguous ending. Having been so seduced by the sweetness of the first section, I felt deeply shocked by the brutality that succeeds it. Whether you believe the ending indicates the Paper Hat Guy’s recovery of innocent joy, or his conversion to evil, you will think about this extraordinary artwork for far longer than the 45 minutes in which it plays out.