An empty stage but for a bare unpainted wooden table. Enter Moses, borne by three black-clad people. He is limp, lifeless. The people look at one another, giggling, smiling giddily. Together they nod, then one takes up his left hand and clasps the scruff of his neck; another grabs his right hand and holds his hip; the third grasps the heels of his feet: Moses comes alive. He stomps on the table, shakes his rear, lifts his arms and speaks: “Hello! Welcome! Welcome to an evening of watching a puppet… on a table.” One of the people gives Moses his voice, but his voice is not thrown. This is not ventriloquism, nor is this an ordinary puppet show with puppeteers hiding behind, above, or below. And there is no fourth wall between Moses and his audience. Moses addresses us directly and explains that he is a puppet. He apologizes but makes no pretext. He is simply a puppet on a table. This is said with the simple clarity of an existential declaration, with a pride and pathos worthy of a final sentence of a parable by Kafka. This is Blind Summit’s “The Table,” now playing at the Chicago International Puppet Festival (http://www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/thetable ). Moses tells of his origins as a leftover from a production of Orwell’s “1984,”who as an old man who appeared vaguely “Jewish,” was approached by the London JCC (Jewish Community Center) to perform for Seder dinner, re-enacting the last hours of the prophet Moses:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo… And the Lord showed him all the land.. and said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there… according to the word of the Lord, and [the Lord] buried him… but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34)

The show’s titular “Table” refers to the traditional table where the ritual Seder supper is celebrated. Puppet Moses transforms this sacred place into a stage for a most profound kind of play. Moses points out the importance of belief. He notes the paradox about his name-sake, the prophet. He, who led the Israelites out of captivity, who wrote the Jew’s history and gave them their laws in the first five books of their Bible, even (incredibly) writing the story of his own death, was buried in an unmarked grave. This was purportedly so that people would worship God rather than His prophet, but as a result the only witness to this invisible God — the only “whom the Lord knew face to face” — is this one of whom we have no evidence of having actually existed beyond his own words.

So Moses, the puppet on the table, talks about belief. A perhaps nonexistent man led people to believe and their children’s children’s children to believe in an existent omnipotent omniscient, though otherwise invisible, deity. What is belief? Moses demonstrates by explaining how his human operators make us, his audience, believe he is alive. They demonstrate the three basic principles of Japanese Bunraku puppetry — “focus,” “breathing,” and “fixed point” — by which we come to believe in Moses. And amazingly, we do believe. We believe he is alive. We laugh at his jokes. We see him aroused, excited, upset. We laugh with him. We feel for him. And we listen closely when he explains that it is this very belief in him that obscures a certain truth about him. The truth is that “he, Moses” is just a puppet made of cardboard and canvas. And the table is just a table. All that happens at the table, puppetry or religious ritual, and the astonished attention of all gathered around, is the result of ingeniously engineered belief. Remarkably, this cold truth does not dispel the magic of the life-force playing through this puppet so much as make his actions and words more vivid, poignant, meaningful. Three Brits with a crudely constructed Japanese puppet made of cardboard and canvas and an American-made table re-tell an old Jewish story. And there had not arisen a prophet since like Moses, until now.

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Christian Sheppard blogs about all things strange, about wonder and horror in literature, film, and the culture at large. He is presently finishing an historical horror novel about chariot-racing, witchcraft and demonic possession in the dark ages of Byzantine Constantinople. He is also editing a non-fiction book "The Ancient Wisdom of Baseball," on baseball and religion, a philosophical "apologia" for raising his first child a Cubs fan. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.saic.edu/profiles/faculty/christianmsheppard/

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