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.