The discovery of fire was probably the deciding moment that made humans what we are. From fire, came civilization, and from there industrialization, and to where we are today. Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 19th Annual Giant Puppet Pageant for All Ages: In the Heart of the Fire investigates humanity’s relationship with fire. According to the Saxapahaw, NC-based group’s website, the pageant “explores the paradoxical gift of fire. We ask, ‘What makes us who we are? Is it our cleverness, the machines we forge and the towers we build? Or is it the stories we share and the fire in our hearts?’ We tell tales of fire, of giants and trolls, of trickster creators and how we came to be human. ”
Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s In the Heart of the Fire, which is told in four parts, is a gorgeous look at the dark history of humankind and, ultimately, the impacts of industrialization. The cast of puppeteers of big head puppets, giant rod puppets, and intricate shadow puppets is accompanied by a whole orchestra pit of percussionists, singers, and the group’s co-founder Donovan Zimmerman himself, who often adds to percussion and the vocal score. Amongst the tinkling of chimes, beating of drums, layered chants, and spoken narration, the cast of puppeteers as giant hearts, blinking eyes, dragons, dwarves, and creatures of fire alike create a magical, engaging history of humanity and the stories we tell.
As with any giant puppet show, especially with Paperhand Puppet Intervention, the puppets were the stars of the show. It seemed that every time I fell in love with the craftsmanship of a puppet and the work the puppeteer was doing with it, a more beautiful and breathtaking puppet emerged.
From disparate body parts, forming seamless faces in hands in “The Senses” to the beautiful storybook pages of “The Goodfire,” from the whole cast of beautiful puppets in “In the Heart of the Fire” segment, to the hauntingly beautiful giant trolls in “Trolls on the Move” — every piece of the pageant was breathtaking. Even though I loved the intricate shadow puppetry, combined with the beautiful narration of Grandmother Spider, the highlight of the show is “In the Heart of the Fire.” Accompanied by fog, music, and waving grey flags, there is a whole cast of fire-themed puppets, each larger and more beautiful than the next. The most ambitious and amazing puppets were two giant fire sloths on stilts and a graceful stilted phoenix.
On the Forest Theatre stage, which is made of sand, stilt work — sometimes flipping and dipping on stilts — seems like nearly an impossible feat. In addition, the spider — a puppet whose rigging includes long balanced legs — was, perhaps, the most beautiful puppet that I’ve ever seen. Watching her tell myths from around the world, while weaving sparkling webs onstage, as shadow puppetry faded in and out behind her, was absolutely breathtaking.
Tommy Noonan, who is credited with the show’s choreography and other movements, definitely left his mark on this show. From the way the hands of the big head puppets gestured throughout the “The Senses,” to the power of their giant fire dragon, to the subtle movements of the trolls, and the people they interacted with — every gesture told a story. The majority of the pageant was told without much dialogue at all, save for some narration, so the work in movement by the ensemble had to be powerful. Thankfully, it definitely was.
Lisa Turner, who designed the lights, worked in tech, and acted as a puppeteer in the show, was an engaging performer, particularly as the head of the dragon. Her lights, casting reds, greens, blues, and purples, highlighted and amplified the already gorgeous detail work on the puppets and created an engaging atmosphere. In particular, the lights over fog during the “In the Heart of the Fire” section of the play, were particularly dramatic. Because the performers were working in daylight through most of the show, a lot of her work in lighting wasn’t as visible as it was at the end of the show, though it was still powerful.
Ginger Lipscomb’s costuming for In the Heart of the Fire was particularly stunning. At the beginning of the show, big head puppets were primarily costumed with black sheathes to mask the puppeteers; but as the show went on, there were more costumes and they were particularly intricate. The costumes in In the Heart of the Fire were particularly stunning and looked even better with the Tommy Noonan’s choreography work.
All of these design elements together paired with engaging performances of the puppeteers, vocalists, and instrumentalists would make an amazing show in its own right. What brings In the Heart of the Fire to a new level is the narrative through line. Through each of the narratives, Paperhand Puppet Intervention asks the question, “What is the difference between good fire and bad fire?”
The answer is a political, environmentalist message. However, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, that In the Heart of the Fire is incredibly compelling and well-told story that all audiences should see. Through each of the narratives, the puppets explore the difference between the fire that is used for industrialization and the fire of inspiration, the fire that lets us tell stories, the fire that creates things, not unlike the fire of inspiration that Jodi Lasseter and the NC Climate Justice Summit, whose inspired work Paperhand, and contributing writer CJ Suitt, to mount this show. In the context of all the displaced refugees existing all around the world, it is particularly compelling to see the Trolls in “Trolls on the Move” literally displaced from their homes and have to move farther and farther away as industrialization and war stretches even farther across the planet.
Paperhand Puppet Intervention even invites the audience to take part in the pageant, at the end of the show, in a moment that I won’t reveal here, that brings it all together and might even bring a tear to your eyes. It’s a beautiful message, especially to experience in the natural surroundings of the Forrest Theatre, that there is a type of fire that could foster nature and beauty, rather than destroy it.
Whether you’re interested in the scale of the puppets, experiencing the stories contained in The Heart of the Fire, or both — it’s definitely something that should be experienced this Summer, whether you see it in Chapel Hill or on Sept. 7-9 when it tours to North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. There’s something powerful about stories, and the whole family is going to want to get to the heart of this one.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 5th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9074: Aug. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Corbie Hill: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article215636725.html and Aug. 3rd video preview by Juli Leonard: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article215852665.html; Aug. 1st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/in-the-heart-of-the-fire/Event?oid=16257409; and Aug. 1st Raleigh, NC Triangle Today preview by Corbie Hill: https://www.triangletoday.com/performing-visual-arts-raleigh/behind-the-scenes-of-paperhand-puppet-intervention-28014/.
Paperhand Puppet Intervention presents 19th Annual Giant Puppet Pageant for All Ages: IN THE HEART OF THE FIRE at 6:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 7 p.m. (show) Aug. 3-5, 10-12, 17-19, 24-26 and 31 and Sept. 1; 2:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 3 p.m. (show) Sept. 2; 6:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 7 p.m. (show) Sept. 2, 3, 14, and 15; 2:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 3 p.m. (show) Sept. 16; 6:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 7 p.m. (show) Sept. 21 and 22; and 2:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 3 p.m. (show) and 6:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 7 p.m. (show) Sept. 23 at the Forest Theatre, 123 S. Boundary St., Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus; and 6:20 p.m. (preshow concert) and 7 p.m. (show) Sept. 7-9 at the (show) in the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater in the Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
Forest Theatre: $15 ($8 kids) suggested donation, with “… [N]o one turned away for lack of funds.”
North Carolina Museum of Art: $17 ($8.50 children 7-18 and $12 NCMA Members), except FREE for children 6 and under.
Forest Theatre: Tickets will be sold at the door.
North Carolina Museum of Art: 919-715-5923 or http://www.etix.com/.
SHOW: http://paperhand.org/summer-show/, https://www.facebook.com/events/801255903398659/, and https://ncartmuseum.org/calendar/event/2018/09/07/paperhand_puppet_intervention_9_7_18/1900.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.facebook.com/PaperhandPuppetIntervention/videos/2042200595812724/.
OPENING MUSICAL ACTS (scroll down): http://paperhand.org/summer-show/.
PRESENTER: http://paperhand.org/, https://www.facebook.com/PaperhandPuppetIntervention/, and https://twitter.com/paperhandpuppet
Forest Theatre: http://ncbg.unc.edu/forest-theatre/ (directions: https://www.google.com/maps/).
North Carolina Museum of Art: http://www.ncartmuseum.org/, https://www.facebook.com/ncartmuseum/, https://twitter.com/ncartmuseum, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Museum_of_Art (directions/maps: http://ncartmuseum.org/visit/plan_your_visit/).
Donovan Zimmerman (playwright and director): http://paperhand.org/who/ (Paperhand Puppet Intervention bio) and https://www.facebook.com/donovan.zimmerman.1: (Facebook page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.