Michael Montenegro is driven to put the products of his imagination into tangible, active forms. After he builds them—often in life-size form, with a rag-tag collage of materials—he becomes them, lives inside them, then delivers them to us with a zany vigor.
By LORI ROTENBERK
If you’ve seen Michael Montenegro on stage, you would never suspect that he’s a shy man; he is, after all, considered one of the more innovative artists in the world of puppetry, a somewhat fringe and underground group of performers carrying on a tradition dating back more than 3,000 years. What sets him apart from the rest, says director Michael Sommers of Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis, “is his remarkable style of engineering and construction. It’s unique, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
In Montenegro’s hands, even the act of construction is an exercise in deception. His puppets seem thrown together in a rush, with a random mish-mash of material. Underneath the chaos, however, lies a careful purpose. As his friend and fellow puppet artist Blair Thomas, who heads Blair Thomas & Company, puts it, Montenegro makes this stuff “that looks like a pile of junk until you pick it up and it comes to life.” A tangle of wires and cutlery can become a face, the finger hole in a pair of scissors forming an eye. Old paint rags become the puppet’s skin or the palm of a hand.
Montenegro chooses his materials, he says, “to execute an idea quickly. Their design is about subtlety and suggestiveness. Exaggeration and proportion are often what make a puppet interesting. Realism is not my goal. Expressionism is.” Even his performance style leans to the symbolic. “Many people think all they have to do is wiggle a puppet,” Montenegro says. “Too much movement in a puppet is like too much human chatter. It becomes a turn-off and people stop listening.”
Consider, he suggests, how a head “floats” on a shoulder. “If it is held high, it can show arrogance. If it hangs down, it might portray sadness or a lack of self-confidence. If it is tilted to one side, it appears as though the person is trying to dodge something.” Materials resonate, he says. They have a soul. As if to illustrate his point, Montenegro glances at one of his life-size puppets, which he has named The Floating Monk. “Yes, that’s my jacket on him and I’m starting to become jealous that he has it,” he says. “Maybe I’ll take it back.”
Montenegro, an astoundingly young-looking 63, not only builds his pieces; he also writes the short-form plays that he performs through Theatre Zarko, a traveling operation he runs from his home in Evanston, Ill. He says the work serves as a buffer to a technological world. “I create puppets,” he says, “to say something that can only be said by using these strange figures. We have lost a connection with this primitive, atavistic world, and I think to our great disadvantage.” While that might sound depressing, it isn’t to Montenegro. “If the grid goes down, there’s always puppet theater,” he says.
His work is often compared to Samuel Beckett’s: tragicomic, dotted with gallows humor, his scripts ranging from poetry to political mockery. The more serious productions can be eery, almost in extremis. One is a piece that Montenegro calls a “duet,” which takes place in semi-darkness. The first character the audience sees is a large, almost rectangular head sitting on a pedestal, donning a fedora. Its skin is made of paint rags mottled with stains; the ears, simple twists of faded floral fabric. To form a sardonic mouth, the rags were cut on a slant, folded, and punctuated with black fishing line. Montenegro is hiding underneath, inside the second character, a man in a patch-work jacket who emerges later in a ghostly white mask. As Montenegro tugs invisibly on the fishing lines, the puppet’s lips part, exposing a ghastly row of teeth fashioned from rusty nails. The puppet even has bad breath; whenever it opens its mouth, it emits a faint wisp of turpentine. “Bring plenty of socks, Giacco, and a warm sweater,” the puppet says. “I am all there is. Behind the veil, beneath the facade, I am ALL… there… is….”
But do not fear. Montenegro can also be flat-out hilarious, as you will quickly see from several of the videos featured in our sidebars, particularly “Meet Baby Gigi” and “Old Saldenia.” Such a wild range might seem at odds with Montenegro’s shy character—until one considers the nature of his art form. What could be a more perfect home for an introvert than a world of masks?
Montenegro works out of his Evanston, Ill., garage—a beautiful shamble of rusted gears, twigs of wire, strands of black fishing line, strips of old cloth, rows of books and trunks. Complete heads with bizarre expressions sit on various boxes and shelves. Here and there lie hands of clay and carved wood. On one table, there’s a small dog puppet fashioned from strips of an old undershirt. Suspended from frames lining the walls are impossibly intricate “maquettes” (small prototypes of puppets still in gestation), which are woven from unlikely debris: an orange peel, screws, forks, roots, a few stones. I asked him whether the idea of the puppet and its design arrive first, or if the story creates the puppet. As he answers my questions his eyes close, and stay that way for nearly 10 minutes.
He says the spark that will become a puppet comes from minutia—bits of an overheard conversation, or an elegant movement. Construction begins with a lightweight wire armature of links, hooks and coils to which he applies strips of butcher paper dipped into a mix of flour and water seasoned with salt (to prevent nibbling by mice). Montenegro also is a painter and a sculptor. When he builds a puppet’s features—from cloth or paper (applied wet, through papier mache)—the angles, indents and coloring may look haphazard, but each one is formed with precision, according to how stage lights will fall on the puppet’s face.
Dialogue takes shape as the puppet is created, he says, but it’s not language as we commonly think of it. Montenegro pieces are sometimes as sparse as haiku. “If you use the human, pedestrian language with puppets thoughtlessly, a disconnect is created,” he says. “Language via puppets needs to be distilled and distorted. A puppet lives or dies by simplification, distortion, exaggeration, and expressiveness.”
Once the papier mache dries, Montenegro starts bringing life to his newborn faces. For a rosen hue, he adds earthen clay powder. “It’s a lot like frosting a cake,” he says. Sometimes, if he’s aiming for a more refined complexion, he smoothes a face with fine sandpaper. Teeth are carved out of wood. By the time he’s done, they seem like figures from another world. “They are a bit like a mummy,” he says, “almost like the bog people discovered in Ireland.” (For a visual sense of how Montenegro’s puppets take shape, look at our video in the sidebar, “Michael Montenegro making a puppet mask.”)
Montenegro seems to have tuned up his senses to such a degree that almost anything can inspire him—even the smell of his masks. “One smells like cherry wood,” he says, “and it transports me when I wear it, it’s very soothing. Some smell like my father. He was a painter and when I inhale, I picture him.” I ask if he can see the audience when he’s inside his masks. “If I make eye contact with someone in the audience,” he says, “I become absolutely terrified.”
More than five decades ago, when Montenegro was only six or seven years old, a pirate that his brother had fashioned from a discarded soda bottle, topped with a papier mache head, led to his enchantment with inanimate figures. “I saw the pirate and fell in love, and I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life.” He was growing up in New Mexico at the time, and he found a book at the local library about marionettes from around the world. His Chilean father was a painter and his mother a musician, so they had no trouble making his youth a hotbed of creativity. Soon, he recalls, the Montenegro family was staging puppet shows that were “epically long and drove the neighbors nuts.”
Before immersing himself in puppet theater, Montenegro became a street performer, in Maryland, Massachussetts, and California. During college he studied theater, becoming an actor and mime artist, fueled by the work of Charlie Chaplin and France’s Marcel Marceau. He also took interest in European clowning, another extremely physical performance discipline. From there, his influence became ever more eclectic: the writings of Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire; the films of Wim Wenders and Satantango; the absurdist, avant-garde puppet work of Polish director and performer Tadeusz Kantor; and photographers such as the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, known for his documentarian work on social issues.
He had plenty of tradition to choose from. The first puppet play ever mentioned was in 355 B.C. by Plato in chapter VII of The Republic. Many centuries later, during the Middle Ages, monks and priests spread Christian doctrine by puppeteering with Virgin Mary dolls, thus the word marionette. More recently, Frederico Garcia Lorca penned a play in the style of Punch and Judy, the famously crude slapstick puppet team from Britain. Ingmar Bergman and William Kentridge later explored puppetry in both film and theater, as did the modern dramatist Paula Vogel in her 2003 play, “The Long Christmas Ride Back Home.” Puppets also have been the subjects of experimentation by well-known painters, such as Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, and Oskar Shlemmer.
The Japanese have a particularly long history of performing theater with shadow puppets, made with figures animated behind a lighted screen. Bunraku and its lovers’ suicide themes, which were founded in Osaka, later became so popular in Kyoto that a puppet theater located across the street from a Kabuki theater was packed every night. In order to draw even larger crowds, Kabuki actors adopted the staccato movements of their competitors, the puppets. According to records of the Greek philosophers Xenophon and Plutarch, from 422 B.C., puppets served as useful devices for political criticism, illustrating how oligarchies and armies were not acting under their own will. Numerous other forms of clay and ivory puppet figures have been unearthed in such places as China, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, India, and Egypt, in the latter country sometimes alongside mechanical toys called “automata.”
Sicily, once a hub of epic marionette productions, still maintains La Opera de Pupi (The Opera of the Puppets). Sicilian puppetry has long been central to the region’s institution of Sicilian Folk Art, with roots dating back to the 15th Century. The tradition involves large, bronze-armored marionettes staging historic, violent battles–sword fights and jousts—against the Normans, the Saracens, and dragons; some are heroes drawn from the Crusades. Italian puppets can be a couple of feet tall, and are usually controlled by hefty metal rods, which exhaust the puppeteers. Hilarious, energetic shows can be regularly found in cities like Palermo; after a performance, it’s not uncommon to see the puppeteer emerge for a bow, panting and drenched in sweat.
If he could, Montenegro would take puppetry out of the theater and onto the cityscape, bringing it to the masses. He imagines performances on a Chicago beach at dusk, the lake its backdrop, believing that the time for puppet theater has arrived. In the past thirty years, there have been signs that puppetry has come out from the underground, fueled by Jim Hensen’s Muppets and Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont. Traditional theater companies are starting to integrate puppets into their work. Earlier this year, Chicago hosted its inaugural Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival in which puppet artists from around the world meet and perform. In some communities, even puppet weddings are becoming the rage.
Montenegro is now working with Blair Thomas, another Chicago puppet artist and the founder of the Chicago puppet festival, to create a 90-minute production of Moby Dick. Montenegro will create the protagonist Ishmael, a role Thomas specifically had in mind for his friend. Construction of the puppets will take place in Thomas’ Wisconsin barn, and the show will premiere at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art this August. “Michael is a quiet, unassuming guy with a deep understanding of the world,” Thomas says. In much the same way, he adds, “Ishmael is able to see into the really dark vision of Ahab, and see the beauty and horror of the ocean at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Montenegro has short pieces that need to be completed. But first, he has something to show. During one of my visits, he disappears into a fray of found objects. “Here it is!” he sings out. And he steps forward with a hollow orb of wire, deeply rusted from being left outside during Chicago’s unruly seasons. “Look! at this!” Montenegro urges. “I show people and they say ‘Wow, you made it look just like my Uncle Joe! Others think it looks like George (W) Bush.”