There is something fascinating and primitive about puppets. Part of the brain sees that they are clearly just creations of paper, wood, and cloth, but another part of the brain wants to believe that they are alive. It isn't Pinocchio who yearns to be a little boy, it's us, wishing, through the medium of Pinocchio, to return to the easy playfulness of childhood. But it is a playfulness tempered by adult experience--since the best puppet troupes walk a line between adult sophistication and childish naiveté. Even Jim Henson's Muppets, when freed of the pre-school world of Sesame Street, perform vaudevillian bits composed in equal measure of silliness and acidic sarcasm.
This is certainly true of the Chicago-based Redmoon Theater. For over a decade now. the folks at Redmoon have been creating works that blend innocence and experience, darkness and light, pure spectacle and carefully crafted literary adaptation. Which mood dominates depends on where and what they are performing.
When Redmoon is putting on one of their annual holiday spectacles--The Winter Pageant or the Halloween Parade--the pieces have a lightness about them. Of course, it helps that these pageants are created by and for Redmoon's adopted community--the Logan Square neighborhood--and feature dozens of local children performing with puppets they helped design and build.
Even when the subject is the death of several firemen who died fighting a fire in the neighborhood--the theme of last year's Winter Pageant--the shows are nevertheless full of glorious, awe-inspiring images: Firemen with angels wings; city buildings that dance; 15-foot women who glide around the auditorium and hide small puppet theaters in their long, beautiful dresses.
Redmoon's stage adaptations are even darker, more serious affairs, and meant mostly for an adult audience. Their current show is a puppet version of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame called Redmoon Theatre's Hunchback. The project fits neatly into a past repertoire that has included shows based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and a moody meditation on the folk song about infidelity and murder, Frankie and Johnnie.
The emphasis on those shows was on the dark side of human existence; the fears and obsessions and demons that slither through our souls. Redmoon's Frankenstein climaxed in the murder of Victor's fiancée by his monster. And their current show, of course, recreates on stage the shadowy, gothic, superstition-ruled world of medieval Paris.
From the beginning, Redmoon has been a company with two missions: to create community-based puppet spectacles and to create professional-quality theatrical pieces. Redmoon was the brainchild of Blair Thomas, a local actor-turned-director-turned-puppeteer.
Thomas first became interested in puppets when he was growing up in Jacksonville, Alabama. "I had my own puppet troupe. I got a marionette as a gift, built a stage, and enjoyed it so much I got more marionettes." Eventually Thomas became good enough at working the marionettes that he performed in schools in the area and transformed the family basement into a puppet theater.
Thomas began his directing work at The Organic Theater. It was there, during a production of Irene Maria Fornes' play Danube, that Thomas became reacquainted once again with the power of puppetry. Puppets play a central role in Fornes' tragic-comic anti-nuclear war play, and the experience of integrating them into the show rekindled his boyhood interest.
The first Redmoon production finally occurred in 1989, when Thomas co-wrote, directed, and performed in You Hold My Heart Between Your Teeth, a haunting, bittersweet story of a high school romance gone wrong, told from the jilted girl's point of view, which deftly mixed puppets with live performance and received universally strong reviews. Emboldened by his success, and encouraged by the parents of his adolescent co-star to start the community-based theater company he dreamed of forming, Thomas quickly incorporated and opened up shop in Logan's Square.
At that point, Thomas began holding community workshops, where he taught puppetry and puppet building to local kids. From the beginning, his aim was to create two kinds puppetry: light-hearted, community-based shows, both by and for the neighborhood, and darker, edgier work for Chicago's hipster, fringe scene.
"I did a lot of experimenting back then," Thomas recalls. "I would round up a group of people and a spectacle would just erupt. There was a lot of energy." Energy, yes, but not all of it well directed--until Jim Lasko joined the group in 1992.
A graduate student in Northwestern's theater program, Lasko had found himself drifting away from actor-based theater.
"I was more interested in objects and object-based theater," Lasko says. "I even created a puppet show with Clare Dolan. It was called The Marriage of Don Cristobal and Dona Risita." Lasko pauses, then admits "It wasn't very good."
"Lasko also had skills I didn't have," Thomas says, "and I had skills he didn't have. It made for a wonderful collaboration."
From the time Lasko stepped on board, the administration of the company began to run more smoothly. The energies of the theater became more focused. During these years, Redmoon also began scheduling regular spectacles throughout the year--a Winter Pageant, a Halloween Parade. It was also during this time that Lasko and Thomas began planning their first full scale, long-running stage show since You Hold My Heart between Your Teeth.
"My vision," Lasko explains, "was to see how to construct a theater that could do this two pronged mission--outdoor pageant work and indoor theater work--both spectacles, both spectacular. We became interested in how the volatility and energy of a parade could be transferred to the stage, and how can the craft of the stage could happen in a parade."
The show they decided to do was a stage version of Moby Dick. Thomas had staged a whimsical, 15-minute version of the novel on North Avenue Beach two summers earlier. Now, Thomas and Lasko set about fleshing out a full-length version. Pegasus Players also offered them a spot on their schedule, and now Thomas and Lasko were off and running.
In fact, the team threw everything they had into the show. Everyone who had every worked with Redmoon in the past seemed to have a hand in the show's making. Lasko and Thomas personally supervised the building of dozens of puppets, large and small, as well as puppet set pieces, whales, whale skeletons, and a whaling boat outfitted with a full crew of harpoon-shaking sailors.
The show received mixed to good reviews, but more importantly, it gave their work a distinctly higher profile in the community. Next, they were invited to perform their follow-up show at Steppenwolf's studio space.
Frankenstein was that show, and it showed Chicago that Redmoon was a company to contend with. The adaptation mixed masked live performers with puppets in order to create a production that captured much of the melancholy beauty of Shelley's prescient meditation on the limits of science. Lasko appeared in the play as Frankenstein's monster, at times appearing in a mask and at other times operating a smaller, puppet-ized version of the monster. Frankenstein was even better received by audiences and the press than Moby Dick.
By 1994, however, Lasko and Thomas could afford to take a full time salary on behalf of their efforts. Today, the company employs six full-time and eight part-time people, in addition to a core of over a hundred volunteers and students who help build puppets and perform in the various Redmoon events year-round. During the same time, Lasko and Thomas brought up substantially the number of Redmoon functions, increasing the number of workshops and performances at public events while still finding time, every year or so, to stage another full length, long running show.
Though this success was exhilarating, the pace began to take a toll on Thomas. He starred in Redmoon's third full-length show, Frankie and Johnnie, playing Frankie's unfaithful lover; he also played Johnnie with a cool, cruel, indifference that took all of the heat out that fabled romance. In retrospect, it's easy to wonder if Thomas' ironic performance wasn't an early manifestation of his dissatisfaction with the company and his life.
In December 1998, Thomas left the theater he'd founded. "I left because I needed to make an artistic change with my work," he explains, "and I couldn't figure out how to do it with the organizational structure of Redmoon. And it looked like they were doing pretty good without me."
Thomas hints there may also have been even more basic reasons for his leaving. There is a great difference between the temperament needed to create a theater out of nothing, and the temperament needed to run a theater over the long haul. It takes patience to put up with the dozen petty slings and arrows of day-to-day management, and Thomas seems to know intuitively that Lasko possessed that kind of patience, while he did not.
Thomas puts it succinctly: "Starting an organization and running one are two different things."
This realization led Thomas to a make a series of dramatic decisions that have altered the pace and look of his career. First, he took a six-month hiatus from theater, taking refuge from the world in a local Buddhist monastery. "I committed myself full time to the formal study of Zen," Thomas says, adding that while he is now back in the industry, he also continues to study part time at a Zen seminary.
"I've learned, in the year and a half I've been in the program, that I am a theater artist. And I have to learn how to make the next step on how to integrate my spiritual work with my theater work."
Alas, Thomas's return to the biz has not included rejoining Redmoon. Instead, he has returned to creating small-scale puppet shows, including his current project, a puppet version of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's opera Master Pedro's Puppet Show. Based on an episode from Cervantes' Don Quixote, Thomas' show is being produced as part of the Chicago Festival of Puppet Theater. Lasko, in the meantime, has persevered on without Thomas--not an easy situation to manage, it would seem. "It is more work [being without him]," Lasko says. "That was the first thing that hit me after he left."
But Lasko is highly excited about Redmoon's latest full length production, . "I think what made me do this show was the desire to close the 'monster trilogy'--Moby Dick, Frankenstein, and now Hunchback. I wanted to put it all together one more time. And answer a few more questions I had about the idea of a narrator, and how a narrator can work in a play like this." And what has Lasko learned? "I learned that I don't want to do those plays again. It isn't because I don't like them. It's just the depth and the scale of the work. I feel like that way of working is finished for me now--the idea of taking these huge thematic 'monster' epic works and putting all of the theater's energy into making them work."
Lasko maintains this despite the superlative reviews Redmoon has received from this latest effort, with Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times admonishing her readers to "Catch it while you can." Nevertheless, for next year's full length show, Lasko is sketching out plans for a less ambitious, more cerebral work--a puppet version of Chekhov's The Seagull, which he thinks he will call Nina, after the chief love interest of the play. "I don't want to tie myself down to it," lasko cautions, "until I have worked on it for a while."
In the meantime, the company has any number of other projects ahead--it's annual spectacles, a production at the Chicago Historical Society, an appearance next September at Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. All in all, "the theater is far more successful that I had never dared to think it would be," Lasko muses, "and it's very exciting that the theater has gotten to this level of success."
That is, one puppet at a time.