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Theatre in Review: The Paper Hat Game (3-Legged Dog/The Tank)

Photo: Craig Bares

How to explain the hallucinatory effect of The Paper Hat Game? Working inside a tiny toy theatre, the puppet artist Torry Bend and her creative team tell their story, conjuring up a parade of indelible Chicago city scenes, using cut-out scenery and puppets, video projections (many featuring stop-motion photography), artful lighting, and sound effects. A piece of scenery, representing a subway car viewed lengthwise and filled with seated riders, appears with traveling images of train tracks superimposed on it; the car splits in half to reveal the car behind it. An urban skyline contains shadow boxes that reveal silhouettes of people in their homes; behind it hovers a video image of a real night sky. A male figure goes for a walk, with a streetscape (part scenic, part video) in motion behind him; later, represented as no bigger than a flyspeck, he floats in front of an aerial view of Chicago's skyscrapers. He also passes a miniature elevated train with ant-sized passengers waiting to get on.

There are major -- and dizzying -- changes of perspective. A male figure appears like a colossus in front of an overhead view of Chicago, juxtaposed with a minuscule string of train cars. An overhead stop-motion video image of people seated on the train is interrupted by a pair of real hands that fold a real newspaper page into a paper hat.

The combination of purposely rough-looking cardboard-style puppets and scenery with sophisticated video imagery and surprise appearances by real human limbs produces a constantly disorienting effect. One enters into The Paper Hat Game completely, as if falling down the rabbit hole into a world that sort of resembles ours, but which is governed by an entirely different set of physical laws. It's almost like stepping into a tiny 3-D film that fades, seamlessly, from one location and point of view to the next. The entire enterprise is so singular, so original, and, in its small-scale way, so daring that it can be compared only to ADA/AVA, another (and quite different) exercise in puppets-shadows-and-light sorcery, presented around this time last year by 3LD and The Tank.

If the vision for The Paper Hat Game is Bend's -- in addition to conceiving it, she designed the many sets -- she has assembled a team of accomplished, like-minded artists. The puppets, some of them no bigger than a thumbnail, are designed by Aaron Haskell; the main figure -- a flat, two-dimensional piece -- nevertheless has the kind of eerily convincing humanity that I associate with the finest examples of this art. Raquel Salvatella de Prada's video design combines photography, drawings, and stop-motion effects, adding color, depth, and dimension to nearly every stage picture. The lighting, by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, binds the video, scenery, and puppets together while simultaneously providing a kind of cinematic flow. Colbert Davis and Matt Hubbs provide a constant flow of music and sounds that further deepen the experience.

Where The Paper Hat Game disappoints is in the narrative department. The story, such as it is, is based on the experiences of Scotty Iseri, a theatre artist and Internet personality, who began making and handing out paper hats to commuters on trains. A whimsical idea, to be sure, but hardly enough even for the show's brief 50-minute running time; it coasts for a good long while on its sheer visual invention, but, even as the story darkens a bit, turning the city into a hostile environment, one can't escape the feeling that nothing is happening. In the final analysis, The Paper Hat Game succeeds more as a demonstration of the skill of its creative team -- to say nothing of five enormously deft and hardworking puppeteers -- than as a fully realized piece of work.

Still, shows as original and dazzling as this don't come along every day. I'm betting you'll be mesmerized by the tiny, teeming universe found inside the modest dimensions of this miniature stage. -- David Barbour

(29 June 2016)

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