The same questions tend to arise whenever I take in a show by Paperhand Puppet Intervention. Exactly how do you review a parable? What critical form would be appropriate for Dr. Seuss?
The thousands of people who seek out the large-scale pageants that Paperhand stages each summer should immediately recognize that these queries are neither put-downs nor dismissals. Over the last 15 years, company cofounders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger have crafted and animated some very potent metaphors and cultural criticisms in works that are accessible to even the youngest of children.
I saw that magic afresh during Sunday night's performance of THE PAINTED BIRD, as an enchanted young girl reached out to dance with a puppeteer in a beautifully handcrafted field mouse costume and mask. Invariably, kids make their way to the aisles to encounter Paperhand's fantastical creatures. What's rare is that such mid-performance interactions are not only tolerated, but encouraged by sequences where the puppets venture into the audience.
With that said, there are few surprises in store for longtime Paperhand aficionados in this new work. It's clearly one of the most strongly staged productions in the group's history. Transitions are well thought-out and executed; the songs from the eight-piece band and the accompanying choreography are tight and well-timed. Nothing drags over this show's brief 90 minutes.
But the script seems to retreat from the complexity and challenges of last year's Invisible Earth. Instead, The Painted Bird revisits familiar ground for this group and its faithful audiences. In the production, a natural agrarian paradise is overcome by the evils of modern city life, consumerism, technology and corporate culture.
The conflict, as stated by the work's loquacious griot, a storytelling rat, is between the title character, a multicolored phoenix, and The Grays—a murky social phenomenon that drains the world of its colors and supplants the natural order of things.
In early sequences, creation emerges from a Taoist duality of darkness and light, as two-story-high puppets representing the sun, the air and the seas bring forth animals in their turn.
Families of wild hares, porcupines, goats and mice then contribute labor to a communal garden. A joyous harvest celebration ensues, with choreography featuring an amplified field mouse tap dance by Jordan "Jabu" Graybeal. (No carnivores complicate this wild kingdom.)
Then, as often happens in a Paperhand show, unfettered progress ruins everything. A row of gray condos replaces the good brown earth. Suddenly, hares wear business suits and work in loveless offices; mice text while driving cars; animals consult tablet computers at a coffee shop. A daring graffiti-artist hare then paints a picture of the title character on a wall. Shadow puppetry depicts his fate—and that of other alienated individuals in this dystopia.
Though the painted bird ultimately returns to restore balance in this changed world, it's never clear how this is accomplished. As children stand agog during what's by now a familiar, triumphant final processional, adults will realize that the script has left a bridge or two unbuilt in getting there. This marks The Painted Bird as a smoothly styled—but simpler and somewhat incomplete—picture than Paperhand's other recent shows.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Arable parable"