'The Jungle'

Trouble Puppet renders butchery in simple terms

'The Jungle'

How do you make an evening's entertainment out of a novel that spans decades of history, encompasses generations of a family, and includes all the gory details of meat processing? By keeping it as simple as possible.

At least that's the strategy that Connor Hopkins and Trouble Puppet Theater Company are pursuing. Their adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel The Jungle, opening Sept. 17, is populated with puppets made from simple paper. The show features little dialogue, and Hopkins says he has tried to restrict the story to its most basic elements.

"When you think about turning The Jungle into a movie or a play, a show, you'd think it was impossible," Hopkins says. "It takes place over decades and decades. It's like the chronicle of a people. It doesn't necessarily have a plot. But the thing about puppetry is its ability to distill things down to their essential form."

The company received a seed grant from the Jim Henson Foundation to support development of the puppets for The Jungle. In 2007, Hopkins traveled to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Puppetry Conference for a workshop, where he created the prototype puppet, a butcher, that led to his design for the upcoming production. The show also received a workshop presentation at the Puppetry Conference earlier this summer.

The result of this development process has been a series of puppets created first from a dowel rod and a cardboard frame and then packed so tightly with paper that the paper can then be sawed or cut away to reveal the puppet's final form. Finally, the puppet receives clothes and basic features for the face.

"Puppetry takes something very small and detailed and makes it very broad in context," Hopkins says. "In puppetry, you can do an incredibly expressive show with nothing but a rag and a stick. That's partly our approach. Simple things are often better."

Yet simple does not necessarily mean shallow. The Sinclair novel focuses on the plight of immigrant laborers in Chicago's meatpacking industry a hundred years ago and the dangerous conditions they faced. With its descriptions of the occasional human worker falling into the grinders, the novel also generated enough public disgust to fuel the beginnings of today's food safety rules. It's arguably a stretch to compare today's conditions for workers and animals to those of a century past, but as renewed debates over immigrant labor and food safety hit headlines today, the story evokes an eerie feeling of recognition.

"Primary for me is the immigrant labor issue," Hopkins says, "and a system that doesn't allow [immigrants] to be there, yet requires them to be there for it to work."

The puppets represent a class of workers easily tossed aside. All characters in the play are puppets except the factory boss; slaughterhouse animals are made from the same materials as the workers. The materials are cheap and disposable, and the puppets are not built to last indefinitely. The strings holding them together remain in view.

Hopkins says the rough look is exactly what he has aimed for: "I like to leave the materials somewhat visible. I like for people to see what they're made of."

The Jungle runs Sept. 17-Oct. 4, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, e-mail info@troublepuppet.com or visit www.troublepuppet.com.

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Trouble Puppet Theater, The Jungle, Trouble Puppet Theater Company, Connor Hopkins, Upton Sinclair, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, National Puppetry Conference, Jim Henson Foundation

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