As you enter the Forest Theatre, once you push aside the red and white batik flag that bears the longtime totem figure of the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, you may feel there is a time dance going on—especially after your first glimpse of the greater puppets that occupy City of Frogs.
While it's tempting to call Paperhand's trademark oversize figures larger than life, in one important sense they're not. When we look up or out onto the face of a person who seems two to three stories tall, we're actually repeating an experience we've all had before. It occurred when we were small children and had to lift our heads high to look into the faces of adults around us. When a show reconnects those spatial relationships, perspective isn't the only thing that changes: Our psychology can as well.
This aspect probably relates to puppetry's sometimes eerie connection with children's stories (which, as any scholar of the Brothers Grimm can attest, are often eerie enough to begin with). We've long respected the tightrope co-creators Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman walk each summer in crafting all-age tales that appeal to audiences from toddlers to grandparents. But we haven't acknowledged the degree to which the form itself can communicate with the child in each of us, through a channel with potentially more direct access than most. It makes the question well worth asking at various points in a Paperhand show: Not who, but when are we?
City of Frogs marks the last of a two-year change in operation for Paperhand. Last season, while Burger took advantage of a long-term, out-of-state artistic residency, Zimmerman shouldered most of the writing and directorial duties for The Serpent's Egg. This season, after the birth of Zimmerman's first child, those roles have been reversed; Burger has the lead credit for the direction and the tale we experience.
Though its sources are spliced from various myths, its contours will hardly be surprising to longtime fans of the company. After paying a brief homage to the history of European puppetry (and a portentous excerpt from Faust), the show introduces a trickster figure called the Man of Beasts, who steals the heart of a friend to all creatures, the Girl Born from an Acorn. A brave boy marionette—whose strings are cut by no less than the Scissors of Fate—then strives to reclaim it. This quest is superimposed upon a story of environmental imbalance, as a race of comic, big-nosed humans replace forest with city and, worse, drive the River and her spirit below pavement, away from her friend, the Oak Tree.
Still, it's a sometimes confusing and drawn-out tale. As in One Thousand and One Nights, characters in stories begin telling stories themselves, which take over the stage. An amusing aging hipster relates the tale of the Golem in such a manner, after belting out the show's strongest number, "Down at the Dump." But a logical disconnect sees a young girl turned into a stooped, gnarled old woman moments later, even though no other character changes age. And at least one choreographed section lingers without appreciably developing characters or plot. Obvious plot devices and sudden character reversals without cause leave the haphazard stitching of the show's narrative too exposed. And even with the audience providing backup (after our pre-show coaching in the sounds of spring peepers and narrowmouths), the frogs of the title had little more than brief, supporting roles.
I'm afraid even a child will know a significant punch is being pulled when the endgame focuses on the principal characters at the expense of whole communities who've just been flooded from their homes by a "liberated" river. The company should also ponder why audience members on opening night started leaving en masse at the start of the final shadow puppet sequence, instead of at the end.
The result: an engaging show that was still somewhat less enchanting than it could be, with at times a contradictory message for our inner and outer children.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beasts of the Southern village."