Even the smallest amount of fire has more power than many of us know; the light from a single candle can be seen from more than a mile and a half away. In the Heart of the Fire, Paperhand Puppet Intervention's nineteenth annual large-scale summer pageant of puppetry and music, is a broad-ranging view of different aspects of this elemental engine of transformation. The sequences scripted by cofounders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger include a socially conscious examination of flame's fundamental dichotomy of creation and destruction, and a colorful, choreographed congress of supernatural fire-based creatures that fill the stage—and then, the audience—at Chapel Hill's Forest Theatre.
In that section, dance maker Tommy Noonan builds from an initial quartet of small, dancing flames wearing Ginger Lipscomb's vivid yellow, orange, and red costumes, each bedecked with what seems like a pineapple of fire at the top. As the eight-piece band sets the pace, they are joined by two smiling fire demons (one of which bears a passing resemblance to actor Christian Slater) that animate the space, flinging sparks from fingers tipped with yellow tendrils of flame. These are joined by a firebird, fire monkeys from Chinese astrology, and the eight puppeteers required to animate a breathtaking, two-story-tall, fire-breathing dragon, which leers down upon the front rows before venturing into them during its serpentine dance.
In the opening section, performers representing the individual sense organs—including oversize puppets for each eye and ear, plus the nose and mouth (complete with tongue)—engage in comical, graceful interchanges before a critique of consumerism depicts how modern advertising overloads our senses. A cherry-red heart puppet and another depicting the human brain help sort everything into accord.
A section titled "Trolls on the Move" reframes the tales and identities of the legendary mountain creatures, who find themselves relocated time and again by a growing human population. Burger and Zimmerman's imaginative designs bring out the humanity and pathos in a great-grandmother puppet, a mountain threatened by bulldozers.
The eighty-five-minute evening closes with "The Bringers of Fire," a benediction overseen by Grandmother Spider, a Native American spirit. Retelling the origins of fire in myths from Ghana, Greece, and North America, this kindly, fantastical creature gently chides us to remember and guard our own stories—our own fires of curiosity and creation.
"I have kept this spark for you," she says. "Take it now, and pass it on to everyone you see." In the stirring ending, it's left to us to pass the torch through the audience, like stories handed from the past to the future.