Redmoon Theater is known for its outlandish productions that employ puppets, carnival aesthetics, gymnastics and whimsical, otherworldly sets and costumers. But sometimes their performances can suffer from a lack of narrative arc—the fantastical, beautiful scenes are entertaining in their own right, but aren't always held together by a strong plot.
But for "Once Upon A Time," Redmoon hired a writer to piece together parts of their concept and form a cohesive script. Enter Joe Meno, acclaimed Chicago novelist and playwright, who also has a penchant for the whimsical. Meno promptly injected Redmoon's aesthetic with his particular brand of unsentimental yet pathos-laden humor, creating a modern fairy tale about Emily, a lonely and lost girl living in a tenement in the 1920s. After realizing she can speak to and understand the chirping of birds, her loneliness is eased.
The engaging plot that follows revolves around the theft of "all the world's birds" and the corresponding loss of human dreams. With some clues to guide them as to the whereabouts of the stolen birds, Emily and her friend Bruno (a retired wrestler and giant) embark on a dangerous quest to retrieve them.
The lovely and unusual set is comprised of a small puppet theater at center stage and a large screen above, which the puppet action gets projected onto. Narrator Lindsey Noel Whiting does double-duty providing voices for all the characters, while the puppets—made up of entertaining, disproportionate photos—are maneuvered by puppeteers via sticks. All this is set against local musician Kevin Donnell's haunting atmospheric music.
The puppet theater itself is an intricate masterpiece, which the audience crowded around when the play ended. Aside from the illustrations and little mini-sets built into it, the theater also employs a clever, wheel-driven mechanism (designed by jack-of-all trade artist Erik Newman) for moving panels of scenery back and forth on hemp-string. Others members of the stellar artistic team include director Frank Maugeri, Kass Copeland (puppet theater design), Seth Bockley (assistant director), Tracy Otwell (toy theater design), Angela Tillges (art director) and Jim Lasko (Redmoon founder).
The ticket price is a bit steep: $30 for adults and $15 for tots. But the haunting mood that Redmoon creates with its visual dynamism, along with the warm humanity of the tale, makes it a perfect wintertime family outing that's well worth the cost of admission.
"Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds)" runs through April 8 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard Street, Chicago. Shows 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, $15-30; call (312) 850-8440.