Michael Montenegro, puppet master of Evanston

November 17, 2010

He won a 2007 Jeff Award for his puppet creations in Writer’s Theatre’s “The Puppetmaster of Lodz.” In fact his disturbing creatures great and small have taken the stage many places: Piven, Next, Lookingglass.

But Michael Montenegro, 57, doesn’t just work behind the scenes.

“I’ve spent most of my theater career performing solo,” he says. “But there are two separate prongs to my efforts. The solos are usually darkly comic and very flexible. But I also felt an ambition to make larger, more developed works, which is why I started Theatre Zarko ten years ago.”

Zarko’s current production, running through Sunday at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, is a poetic, often chilling double bill complete with a small crew of puppeteers, live sound effects, and Jude Matthews’s original live music. Montenegro co-adapted and directed “Falling Girl,” and he wrote and directed “Haff, the Man,” which literally divides a soul in two. NOT recommended for children…

Montenegro started his career in puppetry at 7 or 8. Basically, his parents wanted to get their four boys out of their hair. “My father was a painter, my mother was a musician. They didn’t know what to do with us in the summer, so they got us interested in painting, drawing, and puppet theater. My father was from Chile, and the first production I remember was based on a Chilean folktale, ‘The Devil and the Blacksmith.’ We used marionettes, actually, which create distance from the performer—there’s a complete separation. It’s a little spooky when you’re a kid, a little primeval.”

Montenegro has firm, some might say radical opinions about what puppetry can and should be and do. “A puppet just hanging there isn’t that interesting,” he says, gesturing at a nearly life-size replica of the wife from “Puppetmaster of Lodz” stuck on the wall of his cluttered Evanston studio. “But when they’re lit and moved carefully, they take on an incredible presence. Zarko has no money. We use these little hardware-store lighting instruments—but we can exploit them to create magical effects.”

He adds, “Puppetry has this very strong language of metaphor, visual metaphor. It’s perfect for surrealism and dream imagery. Words too have to be distilled and distorted.” Plus, “Puppets have a long tradition of being political.”

Montenegro fetches one of the prisoner marionettes he made for “Puppetmaster.” About a foot tall, it has flimsy legs weighted with metal and a torso of torn, frayed fabric. “I realized I could make them hollow people,” he says. “Marionettes have an ephemeral quality anyway, they’re on the edge of not being alive. And the material itself adds to that. There are big holes in his spirit, he’s a person on the edge, between life and death—a concentration camp prisoner.”

Has he ever been stymied? “With Mary Zimmerman, on ‘Argonautika,’” Montenegro says. “I was making a centaur. I made a model where the back legs worked independently. But when I enlarged it to human size—there was an actor in front, and the device was strapped to his back—I couldn’t get the back legs to work. I’m still puzzling over what went wrong…”

Does Montenegro have any favorite creations? “I do have certain puppets that are alter egos,” he says, “where I can express things comfortably. It’s like a musician having a favorite instrument, you’re in sync. I have this old man marionette, which I’ve used a lot in street performing. I’ve developed his stage presence, and he seems to resonate with people. I carved him at 18—and now I’m catching up to him in age.”