#424: Paper, Wood and Wire

January 12th, 2015

A whitened bird skull operated by antique spoons. She and her sister glide on ball casters made for desk chairs, hidden by rag dresses tea-stained to match the seaweed and algae that washes up on Monterey.

“They eat out of clam shells and drink out of barnacles,” Stephanie Díaz said, making one of the Las Solteronas puppets take a massive swig, picking up the glass using the magnet system Díaz installed in a bent wire hand. “I wanted these to look like things that assembled themselves autonomously from a shipwreck.”

In a darkened theater space over a park district rec center, the bird skull sisters will glide and dance and tell one of three stories in Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych.

Influenced by Guatemalan folklore and created through a DCASE city grant, the show is part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, telling puppet stories throughout the city.

Garbed all in black against black draping, two actors and five puppeteers will make concoctions of paper, wire and bird skulls come alive at 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Free Street Theater.

Packing up after a rehearsal Saturday, Díaz and co-director Jessica Mondres ran through a checklist of the 30 to 40 puppets and props. A reticulated koi to swim through the air, floating envelopes to chase the death saint tired of answering the wishes inside, a glowing jellyfish to glide from a baby carriage.

“This jelly is made out of coffee filters, computer paper and plastic grocery bags,” Díaz said as she straightened and shook “Madame Medusa’s” tendrils. “With an LED inside.”

Everything is handmade or repurposed, from the white moth that links the three tales to the clattering crab toys Mondres dappled with découpage to scuttle into an impressionistic bedroom. The koi used to be manila file folders. And skeletal San Pascualito Rey, the “King of the Graveyard” running from his duties, was papier-mâché, wood and wire.

The show started with San Pascualito, a minor Guatemalan folk saint. In 2012, while on a writers residency, Díaz was looking through a book on folklore and saw “a little skeleton doing the Captain Morgan pose.”

Díaz, who lived in Guatemala as a child, had never heard of the funny little saint of death.

She says “very” four times before the word “obscure” when describing San Pascualito, whom the Catholic Church does not recognize. This obscurity — and an electric mariachi-rock fusion band from Mexico having taken the name and a fair share of the Google search results — made research difficult, Mondres said.

Díaz created a short piece, including a section on the King of the Graveyard running from his duties, for Links Hall’s “Nasty, Brutish & Short” cabaret in December 2012. She applied for the DCASE grant in 2013, got it and expanded that show into Mariposa Nocturna. It was first performed at the 16th Street Theater in August 2014.

But Díaz said an incident at the opening showed how ready audiences are to surrender to their world of death saints, bird-headed spinsters and white moths.

To explain to the audience who San Pascualito Rey was, they set up a folk altar, similar to the chapel in Olintepeque, Guatemala, where the saint’s real supplicants would leave offerings and prayers. Maybe tongue-in-cheek, maybe just surrendering to the moment, but the attendees started leaving real devotions. One woman rolled up a picture of her children, asking a Guatemalan folk saint at a park district space in Berwyn to watch over them.

“It showed how ready people are to wish,” the puppeteer said, packing away a bit of paper and wire she’ll make human on Wednesday.

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