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ISLANDS UNKNOWN | Review by Susie Potter


Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s current presentation of ISLANDS UNKNOWN: TO SEE AND IMAGINE THE HIDDEN PARTS OF THE WORLD is an unbalanced mixture of whimsical fun and heavy-handed political activism. The outdoor show, written and directed by Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, opens innocently enough, with the main character, an unnamed young girl, making her way down the stone steps of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre. Once onstage, this curious child finds herself in a magical library, where vivid scenes come alive when she opens a book and disappear when she closes it.

There is much to appreciate in these quickly changing and intricately designed mini-scenes. The movements of each black-clad puppeteer are perfectly in synch with the almost eerie music, literally making the viewers feel as if they have been transported to a different world. There was one scary moment on Saturday night when a performer fell off of his stilts. However, he quickly got back up; and the show went on unhindered.

Things pick up when the girl and her goat-librarian friend find themselves on a paper boat, escaping the vast flooding of the “sea of information” that is sweeping away their library. Their first stop is “Animal Island,” which seems to be a fun place where gorgeously designed animals, including a charming little frog, dance together in perfect harmony.

But once the girl and the librarian enter the scene, the audience is beaten over the head with a not-so-subtle message on protecting our wildlife. When the girl almost steps (accidentally) on the frog, puppeteers hold up cardboard dialogue bubbles that say “Enough.” This is followed by protests against pollution from cars (“Enough”) and against the chopping down of our forests (“Enough”). Although the message being presented here is important, it could have been done with a lot more subtly. Audience members who are looking for a light, fun show that their children will understand should be forewarned that Paperhand Puppet Intervention mixes an ingenious array of puppets of all types and sizes and awesome pageantry with series of heavy-handed political statements that become increasing pedantic as the evening wears on.

“Mustache Island” is all about evil cartographers who plot to steal the moon; and “Wilderness Island” is a somewhat confusing, jumbled mess that just happens to include a lovely Chinese dragon that takes several puppeteers to operate. The best and, conversely, the most pretentious scene is “The City with No Past.” This scene presents an Orwellian future where history is rewritten daily and buildings grow rapidly. A giant one-eyed monster that represents the “desires of the past” and “the dreams of the future” enters the scene, leaving it up to the little girl to take him down.

All too predictably, the next scene, “Islands of Trash,” features a heavily polluted ocean that needs some cleaning up. That polluted ocean is, perhaps, the best metaphor for this show. Every puppet, mask, and set piece presented to the audience is beautiful, incredibly made, and makes it evident that hours of sweat and toil have gone into the production. However, the show gets weighed down with far too many thinly veiled political messages, turning it into such a mess that the viewer can’t possibly separate the trash from the beauty.

The final scene, “The Storyteller,” is a long, pointless creation myth told through the use of stick puppets that just seems to go on and on … and on. By the time the show finally ends, audience members are so grateful, that they won’t even bother to contemplate the good that is hidden here.

SECOND OPINION: August 7th Raleigh, NC Classical Voice of North Carolina review by Alan R. Hall (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the August 6th TRIANGLE THEATER REVIEW preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

Paperhand Puppet Intervention presents ISLANDS UNKNOWN: TO SEE AND IMAGINE THE HIDDEN PARTS OF THE WORLD at 7 p.m. Aug. 13-15, 20-22, and 27-29 and Sept. 3-6 in the Forest Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at 7 p.m. Sept. 10 and 11 at the N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $12 (children 3 and under FREE and $8 children 4-14).

BOX OFFICE: Forest Theatre: Tickets sold at the door. N.C. Museum of Art: 919/715-5923 or



VENUES: Forest Theatre: Museum of Art:

NOTE: There is a different musical preshow each night, starting at 6:30 p.m. For details, see

Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Reviews

2 Responses

  1. I have to respectfully disagree with this review. I don’t think the intention of this show is to be heavy-handed, but rather I thought the production ingeniously combined elements drawn from the styes of greek myth, folklore, and oral tradition to create a kind of timely (and yet timeless) form of morality tale. So yes, there may be some direct messaging, much like Dr. Suess’s “The Lorax” in carries a clear environmental allegory message, but I didn’t think partisan politics was the main focus. Rather, the message was much more “lets get back to our roots”, lets appreciate some of the traditions that have been passed down through human history, and also lets imagine a world where mankind can be much more conscious in balancing our needs with those of planet earth. I also thought this was a highly multi-dimensional, literary, and artistic show, with many layers of metaphor, allusion, and meaning well beyond political commentary. I thought it was a WONDERFUL, whimsical, meaningful, and exciting production and I HIGHLY recommend to all audiences grownups and kids alike (our 4 and 6 year olds loved it). To boil this show down to being nothing but heavy-handed politics is inaccurate and unfair.

    By the way, I have NO affiliation with anyone involved in Paperhand Puppet Intervention, so this is an unbiased review. After seeing this show, I am a big fan!


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