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The Puppet and the Fish

By Jason Loewith

Outside, 12 inches of snow blankets abandoned warehouses near Chicago’s Chinatown. But inside—on the vast, unfinished eighth floor of one of those warehouses—a giant marlin and an Old Man struggle for their lives on the sun-splashed waves off Cuba.

No matter that the waves are just performers, slapping the hull of a boat, hung from massive steel struts, that sways to the rhythm of somber sea shanties. Or that the Old Man is a five-foot-tall, crudely hewn wooden puppet. Or that, when the sun finally sets, light bulbs hidden in cigar boxes will reveal a starlit night. This winter’s day is just another ordinary rehearsal for Chicago’s “spectacle theatre” troupe, Redmoon Theater.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become a center for multi-disciplinary visual performance, thanks to artists like Mary Zimmerman and companies like Lookingglass and Goat Island. With its combination of mask, physical performance and puppetry, the 12-year-old Redmoon has distinguished itself in this crowded field with a community component central to its mission. In addition to its once-a-year theatrical production—usually adapted from a classic text (like this year’s Salao—the worst kind of unlucky, inspired by Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea)—Redmoon mounts seasonal, ritual events throughout Chicago. Under artistic director Jim Lasko, Redmoon’s annual large-scale outdoor ceremonies like the Winter Pageant or October’s All Hallows’ Eve Celebration blend elements of carnival, installation and street fair, drawing thousands of participants.

Do these multiple tracks give them a split personality? “The things are married together purely by ritual,” says Frank Maugeri, Redmoon’s associate artistic director and co-writer/director of Salao. “Visual ritual, sensual ritual,” adds Jessica Thebus, Maugeri’s co-writer/director. “We reach for a spectacle language in all our work.”

Whether in its home community in Logan Square or in the upstairs studio at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (where Salao sets sail through June 8), Redmoon transforms ordinary objects into compelling theatrical metaphors. Maugeri believes the “spirituality of labor” is the essential link between Hemingway’s Old Man and the Redmoon aesthetic in Salao. There is no distinction between stagehand and actor: Performers hoist the boat, crank a dial to demonstrate the sun’s movement, manipulate the puppet—blending the roll-up-your-sleeves mundane with the spiritual transcendence of performance.

As the snow continues to fall outside, Maugeri and Thebus keep the heat on the performers. “Keep that line tight! Fight the puppet!” Maugeri shouts. It’s all in a day’s work at Redmoon, where the nuts-and-bolts language of functionality creates spectacular magic.

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