The Paper Hat Game

Directed by Torry Bend
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Nov. 3

Donovan Zimmerman, Jan Burger, Tori Ralston and their dedicated associates have steadily expanded the possibilities of puppetry among regional audiences for more than a decade now. Through their works we’ve learned that puppet performances can range from the intimate to the spectacular; that they can explore ethnography, political activism and a broad range of psychological landscapes.

But in The Paper Hat Game, which premiered last September at Duke and now finds a compelling revival at Manbites Dog Theater, Torry Bend brings a brilliantly cinematic dimension to this area’s formidable puppetry scene. Over one brief hour, this sparkling yet pensive fusion of video, experimental set design and live performance borrows a number of film techniques as it unfolds the true story of Scott Iseri, a Chicago sound designer whose deceptively whimsical acts of performance artand community buildingbegan on that city’s subways in 2001.

Through a window-sized portal that serves as the production’s screen and stage at various points, Bend and video designer Raquel Salvatella de Prada play with our sense of perspective, scale and point of view. At first, incredibly intricate set pieces made of little more than painted cardboard, papier-mâché and newsprint depict a city landscape both gritty and romantic.

But when these buildings, streetscapes, bridges, subway tracks and cars actually begin to move in sync with Salvatella de Prada’s combination of forward, rear and overhead video projections, the entire stage animates into a series of live establishing and tracking shots, pans and zooms as we follow the central character on his urban odyssey. The fancy shooting gets fancier as our viewpoint shifts between the omniscience of aerial shots to those depicting scenes viewed through the character’s own eyes.

A sense of playful invention permeates this work as Bend, Salvatella de Prada and a cadre of lighting and puppet designers including Jeanette Yew, Rebecca Buck, Sarah Krainin, Tarish Pipkins and Don Tucker test just how completely they can merge the realms of film, stage and puppetry. This spirit fits the biographical plot in which a disaffected, bored young man stumbles into a social experiment on a subway ride one day. After folding the pages of an abandoned newspaper into a paper hat and donning it, on a whim he begins to make more, offering them to other passengers on the car. Some regard the adolescent gift with distrust, but enough accept and actually wear them that the practice catches on and Iseri’s character achieves a measure of local fame over time as the “Paper Hat Guy.” We see (and hear, through Colbert Davis’ sound design) people’s responses, watching as a shared toy from early childhood starts conversations and helps break down walls between total strangers.

Elements in Bend’s designs underline the invisible interconnections between these individuals as well. We watch as mazes of water pipes, Internet lines and subway maps form a multilayer metropolitan web reaching out to all. But this isn’t just a puppet fairylandthis is Chicago, after all, and not all borders can be traversed safely. Partly through the use of an inventive sequence reminiscent of the film Inception, Bend and Salvatella de Prada’s plays on perspective also effectively show just how small and solitary humans can feel in the urban crush.

We’ve long known that newsprint, cardboard, wire and paint can fashion humans, animals and whole forces of nature on stages big and small. The Paper Hat Game also demonstrates the degree to which such humble materials can take us, all but literally, on another person’s journey, through fears and creative fancies, toward community.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Infinite jest.”