He Who (Theatre Zarko)

On Saturday, I saw He Who, a Kickstarter-funded production by puppet symbolist theatre group Theatre Zarko playing at the Steppenwolf Garage Rep. A dream-like meditation on contemporary politics, motherhood, responsibility, and depression, He Who at times feels too serious, but I think the group manages to find the humorous moments inside the pathos.

The main character is a giant infant, mostly a globe-like puppet head made of wire and partially skinned in rags, tilted askew with a single eyeball and and mouth that can open to plead for food or attention or issue commands. It’s clear that this is not necessarily a literal baby, but more of an infantile being — at times a baby, and at times something else that is demanding and incapable of taking care of itself (our political system?) The baby is cared for by a mother played by 4 women in parallel, representing perhaps 4 different aspects of the same mother. She is tired of caring for this huge baby and tries to escape into fantasy, only to be dragged back into line and interrogated by an authoritarian lady in red. One of the most affecting moments of puppetry / mask for me was when one of the mothers dons a coat, hat, and mask holding a cigarette and dances. The physicality was so expressive it almost made the mask seem to move. An absent father figure, also masked, appears and disappears, adding to the dreamlike quality of the piece.

The synopsis claims that the play is about “an old man’s dying few seconds, [in which] he experiences the distorted and painful dreams of his most influential acts and their consequences.” I think this gives far too much credit to the baby, and more or less turns the mother(s) into scraps of his memory, rather than their own characters with agency (whatever that means in this context). I think this play is really about the women, or rather, that it should be about them.

It is definitely a strange work, but I highly recommend checking it out. It will most likely be unlike anything you’ve seen before.

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