Through Sept. 5 (Forest Theatre, Chapel Hill)
Sept. 9–11 (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)

The unvarnished, unaccompanied vocals in The Beautiful Beast‘s mid-show chorus seem lifted from the Sacred Harp spiritual tradition of the nineteenth century, but the haunting lyrics admonish us about modern-day maladies such as climate change and big oil. It isn’t the first time that Paperhand Puppet Intervention has employed folk-art forms to speak (or sing) truth to power. The moment exemplifies the artfulness and political courage clearly on display throughout the company’s seventeenth annual summer pageant under the stars, which is about to close at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre before moving on to the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro.

Two themes echo through the four sections of the production. The first two sequences, “The Book of Beasts” and “The Song of Humbaba,” ask what a true beast or monster is, and how it actually differs from what we are. In the first, a colorful, imaginative bestiary comes to life at a slumber party. As three children pore over an oversize picture book, the eerie green tentacles of the strange-looking Grool sneak out from beneath the beduntil the kids look down and the reticent creature quickly withdraws.

After they coax him out from under the bed, other fanciful monsters join the crew. The red, reptilian Zangamash slithers out to lick each child’s face, before the Wumpaflump, with a simian countenance amid a blobby cascade of thousands of plastic grocery-store bags, enters the dance.

Increasingly fantastical beings join the menagerie before the last, and apparently, most frightening ones, step onstage: three middle-aged-men puppets with gray heads and black-and-white suits. The narrator identifies these terrifying creatures as politicians who do dreadful things in the name of the state: “They’ll frack your backyard, redistrict your vote … And make it a crime to be who you are.”

In “The Song of Humbaba,” a brisk adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruka regal, sumptuously costumed puppet with dreadlocks and a beardmeets repeated challenges from the gods for his hubris. But they usually seem to work out in his favor. His battles with the rough, horned Endiku, half-man, half-beast, result in their lifelong friendship.

Gilgamesh’s subsequent quest against Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest (represented in a remarkable multi-person bunraku puppet), raises the question of which of them is truly more civilized or more monstrous. The proud king’s conquest of a being that posed no threat ends in a Pyrrhic victory. The deforestation of Humbaba’s sacred grove to build houses for his subjects leads to disastrous changes in the region’s ecosystem.

Such ecological concerns form the evening’s second theme, which is traced through the show’s final sections. Using Spanish folktales of La Loba, the bone woman, as a lens, co-directors Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger examine recent findings involving trophic cascadesthe systemic consequences when a single species is removed from or introduced to an ecosystemin Yellowstone National Park. As a woman narrates the tale of her uncanny encounter with La Loba, shadow puppets show the environmental healing invoked as wolves are resurrected and restored to their natural habitat. Jennifer Curtis’s score incorporates influences from Latino culture, the ancient Middle East, and Appalachia. Her nine-piece band fills the night with atmospheric and kinetic music.

In the end, this sometimes gentle, sometimes pointed tale of environmental and political hazard and redemption reminds us that if we want to find real beasts and monsters, we merely have to look in any mirror.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Monster in the Mirror”