Best Puppeteer

Critics' Picks

Michael Montenegro

According to Steve Tillis’s 1992 book, Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, the term puppeteer was coined in Chicago around 1917, at the Little Theatre, and modeled on the word for a mule driver: muleteer. Today puppetry plays a big part in the city’s theater scene, facilitating flights of fancy by Redmoon Theater, Blair Thomas & Company, and other groups. The area’s most inventive puppets spring to life in a cluttered workshop behind the Evanston home of Michael Montenegro, a Jeff Award winner who’s designed marionettes, masks, and Rube Goldberg-esque devices for the likes of Mary Zimmerman and Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre. His eerie, angular amphibians surfaced this spring in Next Theatre’s War With the Newts. And his performances with his own Theatre Zarko have included a fierce struggle with a life-size, pissed-off dummy attached to him like a Siamese twin. A sculptor with an engineer’s talent for making gadgets work, Montenegro manages to convey shifting emotions with his creations, even when their papier-mache faces actually remain unchanged. His puppets are beautiful and sometimes frightening to behold, but they also function as a sort of blank screen, inspiring audience members to project their own emotions onto them.