For Deb Chase, puppets come to life with music, humor at FG Library

Shadow puppets come to the Forest Grove Library.Champion varmint-whacker Jack can swat seven flies with one thwack, hunt pesky unicorns and slay giant hogs — but can he grant the King’s wish to exterminate the meanest varmint of all while saving time for a barn dance with the royal daughter, Princess Polly?

Colorful shadow puppets join live banjo and dulcimer music to send this Appalachian folk hero running down the hollow in a free Oregon Shadow Theatre performance of “Jack and the Dragon” at the Forest Grove City Library at 7 p.m. Jan. 29.

Artist and puppeteer Deb Chase uses rods and wire to manipulate painstakingly crafted puppets behind a back-lit screen, while husband Mick Doherty — a multi-instrumental Trail Band musician — provides music, sound effects and narration up front.

The magic of shadow puppetry began thousands of years ago in Asia, where storytellers illuminated leather puppet silhouettes onto silk screens by oil-lamp flames.

Chase stumbled on the art form in 1980 at the University of Oregon. An art major and practicing printmaker at the time, she happened to open a book of puppetry.

Her printmaking background was perfect for shadow puppetry because they both need to create images backwards from what the audience will see, like mirror writing.

First she made a marionette, then hand puppets. Some puppets must be specific to a character’s action, such as a leap or squat. Chase practiced their motions and tried her hand at storytelling .

Early in her experimentations, Chase met Doherty, who suggested she add a musical element to her shows. The two became a couple and started what is now one of four shadow-theater troupes on the west Coast, performing up to 100 shows a year.

They create their own versions of traditional folk, fairy and trickster tales, from “Thumbalina” to “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and write original plays like “Big Foot and the Stink-O-Meter.”

Humor is an important element in most of their stories. “We want people to laugh,” said Doherty.

The couple, who have twice received awards for excellence from the International Puppetry Association, spend weeks preparing for each 45-minute performance.

Chase reads various versions of the story and creates the puppets from polycarbonate sheeting, black contact paper and cut-out black and colored designs.

Meanwhile, Doherty learns the music. “I’ll attempt to learn anything,” he said: Drums and marimba for an African story; button-accordion and Mexican guitar for a south-of-the-border tale; or piano, accordion and kick-drum with a tambourine pedal for a New Orleans version of Puss and Boots.

Doherty loves the challenge of timing things perfectly with Chase. “We can’t see each other. She’s listening intently to me and I’m watching intently at what she’s doing on the screen,” he said. “Once a show is really well rehearsed, it can start to feel like magic.”

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