Invisible Earth

Paperhand Puppet Intervention

Through Sept. 8 at Forest Theatre, UNC Campus

Sept. 13–15 at N.C. Museum of Art

Despite the humidity on an opening night threatened by rain, a bit of a chill accompanied the oversized first image of Paperhand Puppet Intervention‘s Invisible Earth. In other years, this beloved troupe’s summertime shows have immersed us, from the outset, in verdant ecosystems or rich, mythological landscapes made of papier-mâché. This cautionary work, however, opened on a much starker note, as a single woman, Sarah Howe, stood alone on the Forest Theatre stage, waving a large bamboo pole with all her might. Attached to it was an immense white flag.

The symbol means different things in different places. In Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries, it’s a sign of mourning. In armed conflict, it’s the universal signal when one party wants to cease fire, negotiate or surrender. Historically, it has stood for purity in a monarch’s reign. In stock car racing, it means you’re on your last lap.

Given the subject matter in Paperhand’s 14th annual puppetry pageant, all of these readings are potentially appropriate.

Troupe co-founders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger take much of their text in this 90-minute contemplation of global evolution from the findings of Darwin. In a series of early tableaux, a bushy-browed, mustachioed puppet version of the man himself guides us through the development of single and multi-cell organisms, and their gradual evolution into increasingly complex forms of plant and animal life. A crew of 20 puppeteers animate schools of trilobites and blooms of gossamer jellyfish as the eerie, wordless vocals of Lost in the Trees’ Emma Nadeau glide over spacy music from an ensemble lead by bandmate Ari Picker.

Further events are depicted up the evolutionary chain, before a switch to the whimsical in a mid-show “Dance of Domestication,” pitting competing tribes of animals brandishing musical instruments, of all things.

Humans’ own conflicting drives, toward certainty and the further questions that can undermine that state, are dealt with in the humorous metaphor sequence “Interabang!?”

A summation on the threat of global warming includes a doo-wop treatment of the carbon cycle and cloth flip charts in “Visions of Earth.”

But the evening’s most haunting material unfolds in “The Great Unfolding,” as a massive, oval face painted in earth tones slowly arises out of stage-wide bands of dark and light green fabric. But since the eyes of this creature are closed, we’re left to wonder: Is this entity meditating, sleeping, comatose or dead? Is it a personification of the earth, or something else?

The enigma only grows as the band of puppeteers unmask, and form a group carrying large red staffspainted tree branches much taller than themselves.

In the great face’s presence, the group enacts what almost seems a primer of conflict. Short tableaux appear to teach fundamental truths involving strength in numbers and how great weight is only bearable when shared. More complex choreography and scenework suggests armed conflict, and the inevitable loss that accompanies it, before a white flag, again, banishes the post-battle stillness from our sight.

In “Earth’s Desire,” Burger and Zimmerman quote the late, great North Carolina eco-theologian Thomas Berry. “We are in trouble now,” he says, “because we don’t have a good story.

“We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we haven’t learned the new story.”

We’re left with a nearly quixotic feeling at the end of this pensive pageant, as artists of conscience and environmentalism seek to counter a great unraveling with the threads of a new story. Invisible Earth isn’t always Paperhand’s most entertaining work, but it is among the group’s most thought-provoking: well worth considering, at dusk, on a warm summer night.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Waving the white flag.”