“Expect the unexpected” is an understatement when describing the multi-talented, merry band of artists who make up Chicago’s Cabinet of Curiosity. Known for their playful contentedness and ability to crosspollinate artistic mediums, the quintet of performers knows how to fill a space with passion and thought-provoking ideas. “The Farewell Fables” is no deviation from their norm, as Cabinet introduces the audience to a world in which God-like figures are abandoning Earth. Through musical performances, original songs, and strikingly stunning props— handmade by Jesse Mooney Bullock and Kass Copeland— the artists show us we have something to believe in, even when everything around us may be falling apart.
Upon entering, it’s apparent “The Farwell Fables” has consumed the entirety of Links Hall. At check in, we’re handed a program in scroll format and a spoon for undisclosed reasons, and everything becomes more perplexing as we walk through the open theater doors. The exposed stage space is a spitting image of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” With fake grass spread across a regal looking table, violet flowers sprinkled throughout the space, and five chairs placed around in a fashion akin to that of a dining room table, it’s impossible to deny the fact curiosity is, indeed, piqued.
It’s all magic in the making as we see a man walk out in a steampunk-esque suit, designed by Gillian Gryzlak and Susan Haas. Metal and lace gear-like ornamentation give the man an edge, yet the bowler hat he eats out of, filled with what we later learn is cereal, is odd in the best way. The first puppet of the evening flies out with an urgent message that the elemental Gods are bidding adieu to humans, animals, and Earth alike. Before the Gods—Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, all represented by life-sized Andy Warhol-inspired cardboard cut outs—leave for good, they announce they plan to throw themselves a goodbye party in the form of three, very different puppet shows. The hot pink and vibrant teal colored Gods with millennial-mocking identifiers, such as crocheted beards and skull-tagged skateboards, are all undeniably humorous, but when the puppet shows begin, we see a glimpse of true artistry in storytelling form.
Fables and folklore quickly become the focal point of the piece. The half-filled audience—a crowd of about 25 gathered even as closures to live theater were happening right and left due to the growing health crisis—laughs along through the first puppet show as we watch Eve actualize the real story behind eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Papier mache masks and wood-carved snakes enact the story; though each are maneuvered by two masterful puppeteers with strong voices. Performer Time Brickey’s snake is both philosophical and comedic as he dramatically vocalizes his pain and affection for Kasey Foster’s woe-is-me, the-world-is-filled-with-sin-and-debauchery rendition of Eve. In Cabinet’s version of events, self-awareness and reflection, as well as the idea of good and evil, are all brought into existence by Eve’s ability to self-reflect. It has a feminist, God-questioning bent to it that makes it all the more original considering they’re reenacting a Bible story.
Despite the fact the second puppet show is preceded by the distribution of individual cereals to snack on, once it begins, it brings about a more melancholy tone. Told in a fashion akin to Japanese Emakimono— or the art of storytelling through painted scroll— three performers rotate scrolls to depict the story of Charlie, a desk worker looking for adventure in his daydreams. The paintings are striking in both color and detail, and the three separate platforms rotating at the same rate makes the two-dimensional story come to life. Charlie travels to the deep, expansive ocean while artist Jasmine Richman sings out the story of his escapade. He meets Lindsey Noel Whiting’s interpretation of a whale, who encourages Charlie to fight monstrous squids hidden in the depths of the ocean. The tale morphs into a journey of self-discovery as Charlie decides he doesn’t need to fight his monsters with violence, much to the dismay of the whale’s violent desires. It’s both poetic and picturesque, and the story’s moral is satisfying to a pacifist, but the overall connection between pieces is beginning to delve into lost territory.
The third, and final, puppet show is by far the most elaborate. Set in Moscow, Russia, in 1957, the performers tell the story of Laika, the first dog sent into space. The beautiful black-and-white heads and hands that make up the puppets in this storyline are cold in appearance, and the fur coat-clad performers embody Russian winters with admirable acting prowess. Filled with heartbreak and death, we watch as dogs are kidnapped, little girls cry over stolen pets, and scientists send animals to space. Large black boxes, which are opened to depict spaces and settings within the story via paintings, are a new element to Cabinet of Curiosity’s storytelling process. They maneuver props through space with ease, and stack element upon element to create the most intense imagery possible. And while most of this story is told through song, the closing piece in this segment is an ode to the life of a dog lost to scientific discovery that melts hearts.
“The Farewell Fables” is an amalgamation of artistic expression, ranging from original songs to one-of-a-kind puppeteering elements. Each story told is captivating in its own right, yet it’s confusing how the evening’s tales correlate. The first, related to Adam and Eve, makes sense, but the story of the Whale and Laika the dog, while individually satisfying, make little to no sense in the grander storyline. With that said, the final message, as told by Richman via the messenger angel who opened the show, is one of acceptance and awareness as she discusses the necessity of new, more accepting Gods in our world facing the turmoil we are. The need for hope is incredibly necessary right now, and Cabinet of Curiosity’s performance delightfully delivers just that.
“The Farewell Fables” was scheduled to run through March 29th at Links Hall. Due to rising concerns surrounding the covid-19 pandemic, the remainder of this run has been postponed until further notice. For an updating list on dance-related closures, visit https://seechicagodance.com/coronavirus-event-updates