108 Ways to Nirvana: #12, #27, and #36, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Blair Thomas has always brought an intelligent, openhearted simplicity to puppetry, a form that's become increasingly self-conscious and arty. So when he left Redmoon, the theater he helped found, for a Zen Buddhist monastery, one hoped he would return to the genre. Happily, Thomas's devotion to Buddhism led him back to puppets, but his work has changed.
The clear, transcendent, unpretentious beauty is still there, best seen in The Blackbird (#27), a short piece inspired by Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Using techniques borrowed from Indonesian shadow puppetry and 19th-century European panoramas involving long rolls of paper slowly uncoiled, he creates a visual equivalent of Stevens's haikulike lyrics.
But Buddhism now suffuses Thomas's work. Buster Keaton and the Buddha (#36), the final piece on the bill, is openly didactic. Created in collaboration with Chicago musician-composer Michael Zerang, the piece uses puppetry and short excerpts from Keaton's silent movies to illustrate Buddhist teachings. At times the work is evocative, but like even a well-delivered sermon it feels constrained: the artistic impulse has been curbed by ideology. The third item (#12) is Zerang's noisy percussion solo, in which he tries maybe a little too hard to "push beyond the boundaries of current sound," in the words of the press release.