Some performances begin with indications of just how confident the artists are. A magician rolls both sleeves up before a sleight-of-hand routine; a conventional theater leaves the proscenium and border curtains pulled back, exposing the stage, lighting rig, and wings. In both cases, the performers are signaling that they don't need the crutch of a hidden superstructure to achieve their effects. Even with the artifice stripped bare, they'll still overcome our disbelief.
Paperhand Puppet Intervention starts Of Wings and Feet, its eighteenth-annual summer show, in just this way. One by one, a small, multigenerational group of performers dressed in basic black walk onto the Forest Theatre stage, just plain folks who acknowledge one another before gathering around a green footlocker at center stage. Inside, the group discovers and then dons lifelike papier-mâché bird masks. Their body language and gestures subtly change until we're no longer in the presence of humans—or birds, for that matter—but some strange amalgam of both.
With whimsy and gravitas, company cofounders Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger look at modern American culture through an avian eye in the opening section, "Learning to Fly." The vivid procession includes herons and terns, vain flamingos and purposeful pigeons in power suits. (All movement stops the moment one pauses to take a selfie.) The changelings from the opening, strangers in a strange land, try to make sense of these and other odd behaviors before imaginative engineer Chris Carter ultimately gives them flight.
Paperhand's trademark political advocacy is evident in the second section, as a ragtag old-time circus troupe stages a slapstick sideshow celebrating dubious achievements including the taming of the wild and the marriage of big business and democracy. The activism continues in the final portion, as multistory, stage-wide puppets portray air, waters, and land threatened by overdevelopment and pollution, before the rise of resistance—a convincing story, gently told.