Puppet masters pull the right strings on Navy Pier

THEATER REVIEW: "The Table" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater ★★★★

The physical elements of the current spectacular attraction visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater from the United Kingdom consists of the following: one puppet (hollow cardboard head and cloth body) and one table (rectangular, prosaic).

The diminutive puppet, whose name I did not catch but whose killer personality and improvisational chops will long be etched in my consciousness, lives on this table, with occasional excursions into the air, and is manipulated by three noir-clad puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. One does the head, one does the hands, one does the feet. That's it.

As this caustic, British, Bunraku-style dude dryly notes, no expense was spared this evening.

After pointing out the marriage of a British puppet and an all-American table is that famous special relationship writ large, the chatty puppet offers an apology for those dragged to "The Table" blissfully unaware of the circumstances of its attitudinal but dependent star.

"If you weren't expecting puppetry or you're not a table enthusiast," he says, while flirting a little, which means thrusting his cloth hips at the women in the front row, "it's going to be a very long evening."

Well, 70 minutes of big laughs. And the politically incorrect puppet, who is shrewdly voiced by Mark Down, also the mover of his noggin, does come with a back story.

"I was a box, my family were boxes" he chortles, pointing out the underside of his hollow head and observing — while noting that all he is doing is stating the obvious — that he is not actually alive and that, therefore, this was an absurd line of exploration in the first place. "An aunt was part of a curtain," he says, throwing us all a bone, still laughing at the absurdity of his own dialogue.

And thus we have a show about a puppet who knows perfectly well that he is a puppet, a puppet perfectly happy to engage in conversation with his puppeteers and point out that he is nothing without them — a truth he illustrates by persuading them, at one point, to lay him down on the table and clear off, illustrating how he's really little more than a mouthy doll.

"The Table," which is a really terrific show, is not to be missed by two distinct groups.

One is the puppetry crowd, who'll appreciate the brilliance of this deconstruction of the long tradition of animating inanimate objects on stage and persuading audiences to empathize with their emotional crises about it not being easy to be green, or whatever.

The Muppets in the U.S. and the Spitting Image crowd in Britain dared to do a few self-aware gags where puppets might lose their heads of whatnot, but they did not dare talk you through the whole process from the point of view of the puppet.

"Are you all right?" this puppet asks the woman, Irena Stratieva, who makes his feet move. "Where have you been?" he asks Sean Garratt, the chap who moves his hands. The two puppeteers smile and nod back at him, even as they make his response possible.

The other group, who might not think of going to this show on Navy Pier, is the crowd that likes upscale British comedy of the Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais or, gulp!, Russell Brand type. This is very much in that wheelhouse. Come to think of it, Brand would be far funnier as a puppet.

"The Table" is a puppet show for those who hate such arty affairs, even (and here is what makes it so remarkable) as it also manages to be precisely the opposite for those who love them.

The puppet is one part British stand-up comic in the classic mode of Ken Dodd ("I can change all my parts, madam, all my parts," says the puppet, addressing those for whom he lusts) and one part Beckettian hero, a man who keeps cheerfully carrying on, as the tea towels say, despite having no control whatsoever over his own movements and full awareness that he is merely a collection of cloth and cardboard. If the puppeteers put him down, there is no puppet reality. This show puts you in mind of such heady matters — I mean, someone could put us down — even as it delivers lusty laughs.

More importantly yet, this quite brilliant show explores the nature of empathy as it probes the outer limits of the suspension of disbelief. The puppet leads a demonstration as to how his manipulators are able to make you believe in him (it's mostly a matter of focus and consistency) and yet his personality seems to be able to survive the most brutal and absolute of dismemberings.

We should all be so lucky, I found myself thinking. This puppet is a player and a survivor, despite the heinous givens of his particular reality. And you have reason to be depressed?

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier

Running time: 1 hours, 10 minutes

Tickets: $35 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com

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