Puppet Masters

Portland’s Tears of Joy Theatre elevates the art of puppetry with The Jungle Book

What was the last puppet show you saw? An after-school special maybe? Or perhaps a storybook hour staged by librarians with their hands stuck up some glorified socks?

Portland’s Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre wants you to throw out that imagery entirely.

“There are so many puppet shows out there that I’ve seen that might be great for kids,” says Emily Alexander, Tears of Joy’s executive director, “but the parents are, how shall I put this — not enjoying it. For anyone whose idea of puppets is either Muppets or socks with googly eyes, we’re out to change that.”

She adds: “This is a wonderful example of puppetry done right.”

First founded in 1972, Tears of Joy has staged tens of thousands of shows in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The morning of July 9, the theater group brings one of its most popular shows to the Hult Center.

The Jungle Book has been through our touring circuit so many times since it debuted at least 20 years ago, and we’ve always brought it back,” Alexander says. “I’m sure it’s had thousands of performances.”

The origin of the puppet show may date back to the 20th century, but the look is a good deal more contemporary. “We refurbished the puppets,” Alexander explains. “They look better than they ever did.”

Those puppets set the show apart. Relatively speaking, they’re huge. In The Jungle Book, the boy hero Mowgli is the smallest puppet at two feet tall. Nearly all of the other puppets are to scale, including Mowgli’s bubbling bear bestie Baloo, his panther protector Bagheera and his attacker, the massive and menacing tiger Shere Khan.

Although the characters and story are familiar to anyone who has seen the Disney version, the experience is unique.

“I love movies, but it’s like apples and oranges,” she says. “There’s a completely different energy onstage that comes with that element of the unknown when you have a stage production. It’s like an exchange between the audience and the actors onstage.”

The inclusion of The Jungle Book this year at the Oregon Bach Festival may seem a bit odd because, on its face, the show has just about nothing to do with Bach. Even then, in a program packed with weighty performances from the German master, a trip to the jungles of India offers a welcome and kid-friendly counterpoint to the likes of Mass in B Minor.

And just as OBF seeks to re-invigorate the often staid experience of classical music concert-going, Tears of Joy offers a similar reinvention of the puppet show as we’ve come to know it.

“This is one of our finest productions,” Alexander says. “We’ve brought it back so many times for a reason. It’s a great chance for puppetry to redeem itself.

Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre performs The Jungle Book 10:30 am Saturday, July 9, in the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater; $8.

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