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It is August. That means it is time for the next annual supreme puppet show by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, which happens each year at this time in UNC’s Forest Theater. This year’s theme, Islands Unknown, takes us on a journey up and down the aisles of a massive library, a place where all the stories of all the world are compiled. A young girl and a bookish goat set sail on a sea of useless data — texting, blogging, and clogged information arteries — to find out what stories are really there for the finding. All the preparation takes place in this huge warehouse of books until the paper boat is ready, and the two set sail.
The voyage takes place to the tune of a multi-talented orchestra consisting of guitars (six- and twelve-string), a harp, a cello, a stand-up bass, keyboards, and a momentous amount of percussion. While “the Paperhand Band” consists of only seven people (Will Ridenour, Paul Ford, Jonathan Henderson, Johnny Waken, Jimmy Magoo, Claudia Lopez, and Austin McCall), the wide-ranging musical tapestry created by this group underscores and sustains the entire program.
The two set off down one of the aisles and discover there Animal Island, a place where the animals walk and talk like people and humans are not allowed. Beautiful molded heads depict bear, frog, squirrel, fox, fish, owl, bird, and cat. But the arrival of the boat brings with it the human factor, which begins destroying the island with development. Cities and houses and factories and toxic cars pop up, and the young girl and her companion know they must leave to save the island. They are joined by Cat, who waves farewell as the animals begin to return to their normal pastimes.
The voyage touches on a total of five islands, each one telling the young girl that there are forces that wish to destroy the earth and that she has power to reverse the trend, if she will learn to use it. She suffers through many trials, losing her friend the Goat on Wilderness Island, where he eats a fruit that “sets him free” to live in the wild. Our young girl eats the same fruit but decides she must continue her journey alone to find an answer to the decaying earth.
Along this journey we see strange and wonderful puppets that are operated in many different styles of puppeteering, from giant monsters guided by five puppeteers — one for the head, one for the body, one for each hand, and one for the tail — to eighteen-foot-high people whose puppet masters walk on stilts. These monsters — a dragon, a hungry black beast, the monster made of trash — are huge, taking up the entirety of the stage, and are so beautifully crafted that even the smallest children are not afraid of them. And there are children everywhere, completely rapt by the tale they are seeing. A full score of puppeteers are needed in order to complete the show, including the authors of the work, Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger. The remainder of the “cast” consists of puppeteers from pre-teen to adult, each of whom is learning a long-revered means of storytelling. Even with a house so immense as Forest Theater, the opening night show was full, and children of all ages oohed and aahed over the complex and beautiful puppets.
The entire play is narrated by guitarist Claudia Lopez as the music swirls around us and the puppets interact so beautifully. Finally, a storm — consisting of four angry (Thunder)heads — drives the girl’s boat home. She then tells us her story of how to save the world and what each of us must do. It is a potent and moralistic view of apocalypse unless we begin to change the way we treat the earth. By the time the show is done, the “world” (a huge geodesic dome) has been reassembled and the trash monster has gone. This assembly takes place onstage directly in front of the trash monster, which silently and — amazingly, unnoticed — slowly slips away.
While this work is a bit heavy handed, in a time when oil is pumping into the Gulf of Mexico and cities are becoming cesspools of trash, it is a welcome and important wake-up call. It is important in that it instills in children as young as five the importance of taking care of the earth; that it is not a commodity to be consumed but a home to be taken care of. This unique and well-presented puppet show for all ages gives us all the hope that, if we do our part, the part we were given to live in will remain. But only if.
This show continues through September 11. For details, see our calendar.