Through Sunday, Sep. 29
Forest Theatre, Chapel Hill
A sylvan odyssey from an ancient fertility myth, an old-school monster matinee, and a parent’s meditation on local ecological erasure: These are the unusual, uneven parts of Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s twentieth-annual summertime puppetry pageant, We Are Here.
For a generation, founders Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman have filled Forest Theatre with a teeming ecosystem of flora, fauna, and fantastical creatures—with the occasional human, for leavening. A dedicated core of studio artists and hundreds of community volunteers capture their beauty and idiosyncrasies in individually crafted, one-to-two-story-tall puppets, before cadres of black-clad puppeteers bring them to life.
The opening section, “The Life of a Tree,” features large three-person puppets with painted papier-mâché faces and streaming fabric strips that invoke the sun, wind, and rain. A towering Green Man bestows Earth with the first acorn, which is immediately buried by a mischievous first squirrel.
After one tender green shoot (a gloved arm) emerges, the biome fills in: mushrooms in diaphanous fabric pastels, leaves and maple seeds denoting changing seasons, and bees pollinating eager flowers. The array of vivid forest animals includes a comic tango between a fox, a bobcat, and potential prey, before the natural cycle is interrupted by humans intent on developing—and decimating—the forest.
As in prior works, Burger and Zimmerman unsubtly signal who the bad guys are in sequences devoted to environmental activism, depicting transgressors of the natural world—machines, buildings, and people—in unappetizing shades of gray.
But a loopy creature-feature send-up, “The Monsters We Create,” expands that palette as a cable news anchor and reporter cover five weird titans converging on a seaside city. With typical Paperhand ingenuity, an animate plastic trash heap gets its own gross-out effect, vomiting out garbage before battling Earth-protecting monsters. Then the biggest baddies show up: a giant, corpulent authority figure in a gray business suit, dubbed “a monopoly of hate” and “a catastrophe of capitalism,” and a fearsome, flying gas-masked figure.
We Are Here closes with another Paperhand tradition: a story narrated at twilight, illustrated by shadow-puppet projections. Burger relates a last excursion into a forest his daughter has known her whole life, a tract of land clearly based on the controversial Chatham Park. As bulldozers erase the forest that was, Burger maintains, we should be planting trees instead, to combat global warming. When he says, “We are all coming to understand the severity of the situation we are in,” it’s partly a prediction, partly a statement of fact. Given the story of environmental degradation playing out all around us, it’s also an act of prayer.
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