The first thing you see when entering the University of North Carolina's sweet little Forest Theater at the edge of Battle Park, after paying your inexpensive entry fee for Paperhand Puppet Intervention's 11th annual summer show, is a vintage poster (circa 1984) from Bread and Puppet Theater, promoting "cheap art" for the people. Should you be new to the Paperhand phenomenon, you will immediately understand its genealogy from this. Like Bread and Puppet, Paperhand is an activist art collaborative, bringing ideas-in-action and giving out art like hyacinths—food for the soul. PPI is concerned not only with our individual souls, which thrive on love (the word "love" appears in the program 11 times, with "grateful," "happy" and "lucky" close behind), but with the larger soul of the people and the planet, or maybe the universe.
With puppets, music and narrative, Paperhand exhorts and coaxes us to re-enter a world of spirit and kindness before our degraded culture kills it off. With images that even adults can understand, PPI takes us by the hand and makes us think like children. At a PPI performance, the children dance in front of the band, cheer the heroes and hiss at the bad guys. At the end of Saturday evening's performance, the heroine, in her striped stockings and oversized papier-mché head, could hardly get out of the amphitheater: At every step, another child ran up to hug her.
Islands Unknown: To See and Imagine the Hidden Parts of the World takes us on a journey beginning in a mysterious library and continuing through cities and across oceans with stops at various islands. As its title might suggest, the work is a mite heavy-handed, sometimes straying from the philosophical into the pedagogical. It's a little clunky theatrically, with issues of timing, pacing and momentum. In a word, it is too long. But this is only because writers/ directors Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, the guiding geniuses of Paperhand, have stuffed it with about three play's worth of material. They don't run on and on about the same old thing, but in their urgency they touch on a few too many of the interrelated problems that have us in our current spiritual and ecological fix.
But what to remove? Surely not the wonder of opening a book and having exotic worlds appear. Not the stilt dancers. Not the beautifully crafted creatures on the Animal Island, or their hilarious flip chart of things there have been enough of already. Not the terrifying rising tide of information. Not the Mustache Men, drawing lines in the sand and dividing up the map. Not any of the magnificent, huge puppets seemingly floating above the back wall. Most definitely not the awesome Ocean Spirit who rises from the spinning gyre of plastic trash. The final scene could go, although it wraps up the story line. Done with exquisite shadow puppets, it would fare better as a stand-alone piece, since its scale is so different from the large-puppet pageantry. Dramatically, it does not offer a satisfying ending.
But it doesn't really matter. One of the pleasures of following your local artists is seeing their work in the living river of its making. This piece may not be PPI's greatest, but the river flows on. And the Forest Theater on a summer night is a wonderful place to be grateful for that.