Nobody puts more riveting faces on puppets than Blair Thomas.
The creations of Chicago’s leading puppeteer vary in magnitude, materials and mechanics. He does babies, huge-headed girls and creatures made out of shoes. They all reflect the human condition with creepy accuracy.
Most of Thomas’ puppets are sad misfits with big noggins who clearly resent being puppets. Like most of us, they doubtless dream of a life with fewer strings and more dimension. At one point in Thomas’ new show, “Cabaret of Desire,” on Wednesday night, I swear I saw an especially feisty puppet sneer at his handler. Maybe there’ll be a revolution by the weekend.
You can see several of Thomas’ gorgeous, provocative, homemade individuals at the Storefront Theater. “Cabaret of Desire” is a 70-minute exploration of six short pieces by Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned writer who actually penned works specifically for puppet theaters in the Andalusian tradition. He was a fan.
Thomas has performed some of Lorca’s puppet repertoire before, including “Buster Keaton’s Stroll,” a fascinating play performed inside a kind of oversized toy theater with fully playable brass instruments built into its structure. Lorca was compelled by Keaton’s sadness and Thomas skillfully picks up that note of the grotesque. Perched inside this eye-popping fantasy theater of his own creation, he looks like one crazy, obsessed puppeteer—which, for a puppeteer, is a compliment. It’s a great piece.
I wouldn’t compliment the entire show (which is co-directed by Sean Graney). Although visual theater geeks will be fascinated, the show is something of a stylistic jumble.
One appreciates the retro hipness of the intimate ambience, but the five cast members seem uncertain of their bodies and themselves. The show needs a deeper sensuality to fully do justice to Lorca and more visual cohesion. In this kind of work, we have to feel the pain and pleasures of the human cast members, as well as that of the puppets.
Thomas has long had a latent desire to miniaturize his shows almost to infinity—he’s never happier than when a scroll of images on a piece of paper moves past a single light source. That’s both the source of Thomas’ brilliance and his Achilles heel. The more of his work you see, the more you want him to interact with life as it is really lived.