Review: Solo Works (Theatre Zarko)


Fragments of a puppeteer’s life


Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Theatre Zarko presents
Solo Works
Created and performed by Michael Montenegro
at Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston (map)
through May 21  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Michael Montenegro has long held a singular place as Chicago’s master puppeteer. With Solo Works at Theatre Zarko in Evanston, he returns to his roots —a set of simple performances that recall his early days performing for children at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Most of Chicago’s theater community remembers him through his haunting, ethereal contributions to Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautica in 2006 or Writers’ Theatre production The Puppetmaster of Lodz in 2007. Plus, critical accolades have heightened attention to his brainchild Theatre Zarko, with Klown Kantos/The Sublime Beauty of Hands in 2009 and Haff the Man/Falling Girl (our review ★★★★), which we named as one of the top 25 shows of 2010. Montenegro eschews the limelight, but, more often than not, his ever-changing artistry draws a small but extremely devoted following.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011Solo Works displays the craftsman alone with his puppets—a modest presentation pared down to the most basic elements of light and darkness, spare proscenium, and one musician, long-time collaborator Jude Mathews, at a low lit keyboard, providing most of the production’s carnival atmosphere. As such, each short theatrical piece forms a fragment or a mediation on the puppeteer’s life. “Myself at Ten” starkly sets a black and white photo of Montenegro at 10 years old atop his darkly dressed adult body, with a simple four-legged puppet that he manipulates to run, walk, stretch and leap. It wordlessly explores a boy’s budding discovery of the ability to animate inanimate objects–filled with enigmatic wonder and not a little hint of control. But the question of who controls whom pops up again and again.

“Sing” cunningly portrays a man coming home to disrobe and unveil his latest purchase, a bird in a birdcage that he exhorts to sing. But nothing can be exacted from bird without a little performance from the man first. Likewise, both “A Man with A Bag” and “A Short Lecture” reveal the ever-present danger of puppets taking control, once they assume a life of their own. Even “Gustavo” depicts a puppet violinist being dictated to by his own violin, which opens its toothy mouth and makes demands like, “I want to go to Hawaii,” or “I want to be a cello.” Time and again, Montenegro’s creations make Id-like pronouncements that inform, critique or disrupt the puppeteer’s course of action. It’s a testament to Montenegro’s skill that he can transform his bare hand into a puppet with a menacing presence. But more to the point, the puppeteer must respond to what he has vivified.

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011By far, the evening’s boldest, most enigmatic and existential work may be “Giacco,” wherein a grotesque, almost ghostly head is manipulated to speak, urging another puppet, formed only by Montenegro’s back, to run toward the crowd. But Solo Works mixes intricate, esoteric puppetry with elements of crowd-pleasing, Punch-and-Judy street puppetry. Childlike rudeness and joy blends with the graceful, the magical and the profound. What is more, Theatre Zarko always produces work in constant evolution through the course of the run–the show an audience sees one night may not be the same the next.

At times, the fragmentary nature of Solo Works frustrates because it lacks a strong cohesive arc. But that will not prevent anyone from becoming absorbed, moment-by-moment, by the master’s dreamlike figures sculpted from wood, wire and cloth. The figures may reflect a life made up of pieces and bits–found, repurposed, and re-awakened.

Rating: ★★★

Theatre Zarko puppet - from Solo Works, Spring 2011

Solo Works continues through May 21st at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15 at the door, and reservations can be made by calling 847-350-9275.  For more information, visit


REVIEW: Haff, the Man – Falling Girl (Theatre Zarko)


The Gossamer Poetry of Light and Dark


Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko

Theatre Zarko presents
Haff, the Man and   Falling Girl
Haff, the Man: written and directed by Michael Montenegro
Falling Girl: co-directed by Ellen O’Keefe and
Michael Montenegro 
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $13-$18   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Theatre Zarko does something far more profound than ably tell stark, simple tales with charming puppets. They revive the very meaning and value of Symbolist Theater for Chicagoland audiences. Artistic Director Michael Montenegro has a vision—and that vision is to mount productions that reawaken the Symbolist mission of creating drama as poetry, not just re-do Symbolism as a period movement, creaky with inbred art house nostalgia. He and his ensemble of performers succeeded last season with The Sublime Beauty of Hands and Klown Kantos. They win once again with Haff, the Man and Falling Girl at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.

In fact, the show provides the best of both worlds. It contains all the immediacy and risk of live theater, while integrating light (Scott Lee Heckman), music (Jude Mathews), sound, projections (Ellen O’Keefe) and movement to almost pristinely pure cinematic effect. Even the performers’ stately movements – setting up between scenes – take on a ritualistic element within the overall performance, replicating the economy of modern poetry. Nothing is wasted. Every word, every sound, every puppet’s shaky gesture or turn of the head generates deep and lasting poetic impact.

Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko Haff, the Man generates tension and suspense through the two warring halves, literally, of one desolate man, Lou. The left half of Lou retreats reclusively and bitterly at home. The arrival of his right half is an unwelcome visit, as if from a dangerous stranger or an enemy with which he’s achieved an uneasy détente. But the right half of Lou has met a young woman and wants to take the rest of him forward into a new and promising future. Lou’s woundedness recalls left brain/right brain theory and the puppeteers are masters at suggesting mood, as much as the orchestra sets up perfect atmospherics with singing bowls and African djembes.

Montenegro and O’Keefe have adapted Falling Girl from a short story of the same name by Dino Buzzati (English translator Lawrence Venuti). A young woman jumps off the top of a city skyscraper, not to end  her life but to begin it. She jumps, not from depression or desperation, but out of anticipation.Haff the Man and Falling Girl poster - Theatre Zarko “They’re waiting for me down there. Opportunity. Romance. The true inauguration of my life. I hope I’m not late.”

Is she delusional? Is her jump really a cry for help? Or is it a daring act beyond the comprehension of the people who witness it? Her witnesses are many–jaded party-goers who think that young women throwing themselves off of buildings are “an interesting diversion for the tenants.” Others urge her, as if to stop her in mid-fall, “You still have time to rush around and be busy.” A line of identical secretaries begs her to take them with her. What’s more, Falling Girl’s fall seems interminable, suspending her and all who watch her in a dreamlike state.

Falling Girl and Haff, the Man are the stuff of dreams. Theatre Zarko’s interplay of light and dark with each story evokes the silver screen. At the same time, their production is homey, earthy and intimate. They have achieved both epic and minimalist theater; they have found the macrocosm in the microcosm.

Rating: ★★★★

Show runs October 8 thru November 21 at Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  (Friday and Saturday at 7pm & 9pm; Sundays at 3pm).  Note: This production is not recommended for children.

Haff the Man - Theatre Zarko - Noyes Cultural Center - a photo of Haff, the Man. Carl Wiedemann photographer. 



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