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Chicago Sun-Times

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

by Hedy Weiss, Theatre Critic
Highly recommended

Only Redmoon Theater could conjure the labyrinthine world of medieval Paris and the dark confessionals and gothic turrets of the cathedral of Notre Dame from a stack of battered wooden crates and two wheeled scaffolds outfitted with ladders that rotate like the arms of an ominous windmill. There’s more, of course: a vast arsenal of masks, marionettes, rod puppets and shadow puppets; a giant pop-up book that doubles as a miniature stage, and a cast of eight live actors who assume so many forms so seamlessly, you feel you’re watching a cast of thousands.

Ever since the publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame nearly 170 years ago , this epic tale of death and deformity, self-torturing obsession and tormented love, has been fodder for plays and musicals, films and animated features. But Redmoon’s very adult production, which opened Sunday at Steppenwolf Studio, may just come closer to Hugo’s initial intent than any of them as it unspools the story of Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen bell ringer of Notre Dame (played by both Adrian Danzig and Frank Maugeri), his passion for the gypsy girl, Esmeralda (Sharon Gopfert), and his punishment by Frollo, the vicious, twisted, love-starved archdeacon.

It’s perfectly fitting that the character of Hugo himself (played with wicked intelligence by David Engel, a vivid directorlike presence in this version, especially as he reminds us that this story emerges from the world of the plague years. It’s a tale full of horror, stench, madness and despair. Yet there also is a sense of the sublime, captured best in the soaring architecture of Notre Dame.

Created by Jim Lasko with the Red moon company, and directed by Leslie Buxbaum and Lasko (who also created the ingenious sets, and with Shoshanna Utchenik, the riveting masks) his production is an extraordinary synthesis of the real and the artificial. Actors double as daredevil gymnasts and masterful puppeteers and then mix easily with the artifice of vivid handmade constructions of papier-mache.

But perhaps more than anything else, the genius of this Redmoon creation ties in the use of scale, as characters and objects are alternately telescoped and magnified to suggest their inner emotional life at the moment or the great turbulence of their worldly existence. Laura Heit’s haunting puppet design, Mickle Maher’s text, Joel Klaff’s costumes, Christine Binder’s lighting and Michael Zerang’s complex, vividly textured score propel the work of the remarkable performers (who also include Sammy Porretta, Culley Orion Johnson, Kristin Randall and Rebecca Tennison). Together they create a work that evokes the mystery and misery that lurk within the recesses of Notre Dame, just as they do within the human heart itself. Redmoon will make its New York debut Sept. 11-17, when “Hunchback” is featured at the prestigious Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. Catch it while you can in Chicago.

© Chicago Sun-Times

Windy City Times

Thursday, May 25, 2000

by Johnathan Abarbanel

Playwright: Jim Lasko and Mickle Maher
At: Redmoon Theater at the Steppenwolf Studio, 1650 N. Halsted.

We’ve come to expect Redmoon to be shockingly creative, and they do not fail. The clever and surprising scenic mechanics, the rich visual tableaux, the prominent and effective use of music and sound, the sensuous grotesques of their designs, the free exchange of a character from actor to puppet and back again, all are present in Hunchback, their 90-minute version of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.

As usual, they use marionettes, stick puppets, giant (12-foot) stick puppets, shadow puppets, models, miniatures and live actors wearing face-concealing, larger-than-life masks (puppet design by Laura Heit; masks and scenery by Jim Lasko and Shoshanna Utchenik).

They also employ an unmasked actor-narrator as Hugo himself, who reminds viewers that Paris of 1482 was a medieval city of glorious half-timbered architecture shadowing streets that were plague-ridden running sewers. Initially semi-comic, he is the show’s only speaking actor.

Wordless, and with their heads covered the eight-person ensemble excels at physical “plastique,” using body movement and gesture alone to express emotions from terror to longing, They are assisted in no small part by Michael Zerang’s evocative score of musical distortions, percussion, tastes f medieval dance and plainsong, and–of course–cathedral bells. Many moments with puppets, actors or both really are close to dance sequences, such as the scene of Esmeralda haunted at midnight.

Nimble and strong, the players dart in-and-out of wooden packing crates that represent the cells and studies of Isle de la Cite, and swing with surprising grace across two scaffold towers-that represent the still-unfinished spires of Notre Dame crisscrossed by stepladders rigged as see-saws.

As usual, too, Redmoon’s intense reduction of the massive novel selects a dozen scenes of heightened emotion and narrative necessity.

In so doing, creator and co-director (with Leslie Buxbaum) Jim Lasko and text author Mickle Maher have incorporated elements missing from the widely-known film versions of the novel; namely, the “backstory” of the villain, Father Frollo, and the tale of Esmeralda’s true mother. The former makes a difference, the latter does not.

But something is sacrificed in such a reduction. Missing are the familiar “crowd” scenes of the Feast of Fools, the petty thieves and young student/poets, and of Quasimodo pouring melted lead over the ramparts.

Redmoon may argue, correctly, that such scenes have nothing to do with the emotional essence of Hunchback. But they have everything to do with Paris.

By eliminating the tapestry of the people and the fecund tangle of street life, Redmoon violates Rule One of theater, “show us, don’t tell us,” and neutralizes the narrator. Paris and its people are the missing character.

© Windy City Times


Thursday, May 25, 2000


By Ben Winters


Senor Wences: “OK?”

Pedro: “S’awright.”

OK? S’awright. OK? S’awright. Wences and his wooden sidekick struck vaudeville gold, became regulars on the Ed Sullivan Show,” performed for presidents, went on the road with Martin & Lewis, played every casino in Vegas. OK? S’awright. Wences died last April at 103; if, by some chance, you’d like to honor his memory by taking in as many puppet shows as possible in one seventy-two-hour period, here’s your chance: This weekend, Chicago is simply popin’ with puppets. When I call the cell phone of Jim Lasko, Redmoon Theatre’s artistic director, he says he is crawling down from a ladder, and could he call me back in five minutes? No doubt Lasko is putting a finishing touch on “Hunchback,” Redmoon’s adaptation of victor Hugo’s epic about the poor, heartaching wretch in the belltower. You may have seen the Disney version or any number of live-action film/TV/stage adaptations, but odds are you haven’t seen anything like Redmoon’s take: Like all of their work, “Hunchback” is theater of the inanimate object, in which the puppets and the props are the stars.

“We love the combination of innocence and intelligence that a puppet has,” says Lasko, safely earthbound and musing on the deceptively rich possibilities of the puppets/puppeteers relationship. “[A puppet] is just a simple little thing, and you understand it innately from its first appearance on stage. Yet it appears with the intelligence of the manipulator–if that intelligence has been gauged correctly…there’s something very exciting about that.”

Also exciting is what a puppet can do that a human can’t. “Puppets have a much more limited range of motion,” says Lasko, “but a greater range of image-making potential. A human being can’t, for example, just float in mid-air. Clearly, a human being does all kinds of things a puppet can’t do, but we’re accustomed to seeing that.” Why Hugo? “The people are fairly complex, but their relationships are well-established, and that’s something that puppetry can work with.” In other words, subtle and ever-evolving relationships are the not the puppet’s forte, but (ahem) neither were they Hugo’s.

This puppet wants this from that one,” says Lasko. “The Frollo puppet wants the Esmeralda puppet carnally; he lusts after her. That’s a fairly simple motivation. It doesn’t have, as we play it, lots of layers of complexity to it: it is what it is. We can feet the reverberations of [the relationship] on different thematic levels, but we never have to question that initial assumption.” With puppets, he figures, “It’s not psychological, it’s archetypal. It’s not Freud; it’s Jung.” OK? S’awright.

Brett Neveu, the mad genius behind the Pup At Theatre and their latest work, the “P.Imps. Show” –which has been extended through June 22 at ComedySportz– is working on a far less sophisticated level, at least as far as the objects themselves: The puppets in his show include oven mitts, erasers, action figures, Crackerjack prizes and at least one paperback book. But whether staging great French literature or, as with “P. Imps.” a fast-paced, dirty comedy puppet improv show, the underlying magic is the same.

“It hearkens back to childhood, of course,” says Neveu. His own fascination with puppets began, he says, watching a “Tonight Show” segment in which Ms. Piggy and Kermit were interviewed. They were the exact same puppets, but in the new “backstage” context “somehow their facial expressions were so different than they were on the [“Muppet”] show–that’s what I’m looking for. You watch puppets do things that regular people would do, and it’s fascinating.”

Two other possibilities for puppet fans: Red Hen’s production of “A Dybbuk,” playing at the Chopin Theatre through Sunday, features majestic, expressionistic puppets crafted by Hystopolis Productions, and it’s a smart and darkly beautiful show besides. Finally, Redmoon Theatre founder Blair Thomas has collaborated with the Chicago Opera Theater on something called “Master Pedro’s Puppet Show,” running this weekend and next at the Department of Cultural Affairs’ new Storefront Theater downtown. Like “Hunchback,” the work takes a piece of great literature, in this case “Don Quixote,” as a jumping off point; with puppets, opera and Cervantes, what more could you ask for?

© Newcity


Friday, June 2, 2000

Redmoon Theater at Stepponwolf Theatre Company & SIDE SHOW at North Light Theatre
by Adam Langer

You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you when he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel to be such a freak?”
–Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”

We have different freak shows now, late-night and daytime talk shows, which parade emotional and social aberrations before us with the same leer carnival barkers once used to beckon bloodthirsty throngs to watch a man bite the head off a dove. Then there are the voyeuristic real-time peep shows that train their cameras on our living rooms and bedrooms to drive home the truth that old-time sideshows tried to disguise: in one way or another, we’re all freaks. From one perspective, every man or woman is a unique, bizarre specimen. And from another, every physical or emotional peculiar–whether it’s a third eye smack-dab in the middle of a forehead or an obsessive-compulsive desire to scrub the sink every day, binds us to those who are also peculiar.

Redmoon Theater’s Hunchback ostensibly tells the story of an outsider’s inability to fit into a world that rejects him because of his physical appearance–but the world is presented as a mad carnival of grotesqueries, each creature stranger than the next in a society supremely ugly and squalid yet somehow sublime. And in the car-world of Northlight Theatre’s musical Side Show–based on the true story of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins displayed in carnival tents and vaudeville houses and ultimately on the silver screen-supposed differences become banal. The sisters, the serpent man, the tattooed lady, and the cannibal are joined by their need for love and companionship. Both productions explore the extraordinary and find the universal; both offer serious exceedingly well-wrought visions. But Hunchback delights in the peculiar the surreal, and the nightmarish while Side Show revels in the ordinary: no matter how unusual the lives it presents, everyone sings the same old fashioned, dreamy tunes. Ultimately Redmoon’s approach is more resonant: rather than simply reassure us, this puppet troupe forges a gripping, tantalizing original show that’s both memorably beautiful and profoundly disturbing.

Like its production of Frankenstein, Redmoon’s haunting Hunchback is filled with both horror and whimsy, taking Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a starting point to tell tale of bell ringer Quasimodo’s doomed love for a wayward Gypsy girl. Directed by Jim Lasko and Leslie Buxbaum and featuring text by Mickle Maher, Hunchback zigzags through this oft told tragedy, speeding through some of the story but digressing to explore the light of the girl, snatched from her loving mother and pursued by a mad, murderous member of the clergy. Interruptions the “author,” presumably Hugo, offer additional historical detail, comic relief, and a heady, sometimes irreverent perspective on the original text and Redmoon’s interpretation, commenting in terms of postmodern literary theory and Brechtian epic theater. The story naturally holds our interest even if the themes are familiar, represented in works from The Elephant Man to King Kong to Young Frankenstein. But Redmoon’s techniques are truly mind-blowing: this production has more sheer magic than any show you’re likely to see this year.

There are more amazing special effects in a minute here than there are in the entire plodding two hours of Mission: Impossible 2. To achieve them Redmoon uses gigantic puppets, miniature puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, masks-enormous, frightening masks lifted right out of a child’s nightmares-acrobatics, storybook illustrations, handmade pop-up books, and mysterious crates piled up at the back of the stage through which the actors pop in and out. Redmoon’s madcap shifting from one technique to another is both theatrical and cinematic. A good deal of the staging seems influenced by German expressionist silent films, and the way in which scenes switch from larger-than-puppets to miniature ones and back again is the equivalent of cutting between close-ups and long shots. The narrative is expertly underscored by Michael Zerang’s eerie, propulsive, evocative music and sound design.

Moods shift rapidly from comedy to terror. A hilarious scene in which a dashing young man seduces the Gypsy girl is interrupted by a spine-tingling vision of cold-blooded murder. Beauty mingles with ugliness, sorrow with hope. Quasimodo is not a bizarre creature in a Paris populated by normal human beings but an oddity among other oddities, a freak among freaks as misshapen and grotesque as the looming foreboding architecture of the city The ultimate effect is not only breathtaking but inspiring.

Despite all the technical wizardry and smart-ass interruptions, Redmoon is able to sustain both the soul of Hugo’s story and the impact of its harrowing grisly finale: Quasimodo and his beloved embrace as skeletons in a crypt. Bleak and chillingly morbid, the scene is not without humanity and passion. In this ghoulish embrace, depicted with grace and eloquence, prejudice is overcome by love-beneath the skin and costumes and masks Redmoon finds the true beauty and emotion that lie in our bones.

© Reader