Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Phantom Loss
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Lion King and The Name Jar

Bird above, Mr. Chicken climbing mountains
Photo courtesy of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
Attending Phantom Loss, the latest original work from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, I learned that the intrepid company achieved a landmark this year as they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. That is a very long time in the realm of small, financially lean non-profit arts organizations to have carried out their mission which is to "nurture creative empowerment through the joy and magic of puppetry performance and education." Any opportunity to see their work is worth taking for the sheer pleasure of viewing the artistry of their puppets and masks, and the intelligence with which those creations are made to convey feelings and propel a narrative.

To say that Heart of the Beast's medium is puppetry is to understate the depth and range of what they do. The puppets and masks they create and through which they tell stories that, most often, deal with humanity's place in a much larger universe, are powerful in the intensity of their image and expression, yet delicate in their nuanced details. Some are larger than a grown adult, others can fit on the palm of that adult's hand. Those puppets take a great many forms, including puppets on strings, gloved hand puppets, puppets mounted on sticks or operated with rods, shadow puppets, and the form most often used in Phantom Loss, tabletop puppets.

Tabletop puppetry is a European variation of a form of Japanese puppetry called Bunraku. In Bunraku, the operators of the puppets are visible and generally hold the puppet in front of them at about waist height. There is close contact between the puppet and its operator, who controls the puppets with iron rods. Tabletop puppets generally are smaller, often no more than a foot high, and instead of iron rods, operators often control the puppets with direct manual manipulation. The puppets are usually fully articulated, with joints that can bend and turn, for example, bending their knees for them to climb stairs or turning their head to indicate a nod. Often it takes two operators to carry out the movements and gestures of a single puppet. The shows are presented atop a platform that is about the height of a table, hence the name.

Tabletop puppets are used for all of the main characters in Phantom Loss. The play was written by Oanh Vu, a second generation Vietnamese American whose parents fled Vietnam in 1982, leaving some of their children (Oanh Vu's siblings) behind. It would be a full decade before the family was reunited. Oanh Vu based her play on the sense of loss and helplessness of those experiences.

Two girls form the heart of Phantom Loss. One lives with her grandmother above the nail salon that provides their livelihood. The grandmother works herself to the bone, believing that is what survival requires, but the girl–who has the appearance of a 1990's era punk–doesn't see the value in this, and sets out seeking meaning for her life, ignoring her grandmother's protests. She is befriended by a ghost, inhabiting the body of a dog, called Mr. Chicken. Mr. Chicken is a comical character, but he also dispenses encouragement and wisdom. He also turns out to be far more than he first appears.

The second girl lives in a dilapidated house with its windows boarded up, and her own appearance is similarly disheveled. She is grieving and unable to leave the house where she waits for her long absent father to reappear. The first girl and Mr. Chicken offer her solace and encouragement to move on with life. There is also a great bird in the story who, according to Mr. Chicken, feeds on resentments and regrets. Both of the girls are subject to this bird's appetite.

How the story unwinds is not always clear. To be honest, the artistry of the creation and enactment of these appealing characters is totally captivating, the narrative not as much. It seems like the characters know what is happening, even if they don't understand life's underlying mysteries, but that there are gaps going from one situation to another that leave the audience (at least this audience member) puzzled. Fortunately, there are frequent enough touch points where the narrative is clarified to allow viewers to regain their bearings, and the general arc of the story and its optimistic resolution are clear enough.

The four puppeteers who operate the puppets are Sofia Padilla, Tri Vo, Andrew Young, and playwright Oanh Vu. They often switch off in pairs to manipulate the puppets, especially to negotiate complicated actions, such as picking up and holding onto a book. All four exhibit a mastery of their media, operating their charges with nuance and grace. The puppeteers also lend their voices to the characters, giving each a distinctive sound and attitude. As the director of Phantom Loss, Kurt Hunter has ably orchestrated the pairings and reshuffling of puppeteers, and guided the expressiveness of each character's voice.

The puppets are beautiful objects that, moreover, carry a depth of expression, fabricated by Vu and Young, with support from Hunter. Karly Gesine Bergmann has conceived apt costumes that adorn the puppets. In addition to tabletop puppets, shadow puppets, cleverly fabricated by Leyen Trang and Young, are used intermittently during the play.

Two evocative set pieces are dominant, the nail salon and the boarded-up house, but there are other inventive settings, including a foreboding mountain range, all designed by Steve Ackerman and Orren Fen. Heidi Eckwall's lighting design, Mike Hallenbeck's sound design, and music composed by Charles McCarron complete the suite of elements that contribute to an artistically fantastic whole.

Even with a narrative that left me scratching my head on a number of occasions, Phantom Loss had me consistently engaged by the appearance and operation of these puppet-characters, and the remarkable design work surrounding them. Too, the overall sense of loss and disorientation attributed to wartime separation and being a new arrival in a strange land clearly comes across. The play also leaves room for humor, a lot of it courtesy of Mr. Chicken, that provides a balance to the seriousness of the plight both girls face.

There are ample reasons to see Phantom Loss and to feast in the creativity, craftsmanship, skilled performances, and socially forward messages delivered by this team of artists. Here's to another fifty years of evocative storytelling by Heart of the Beast.

Phantom Loss, produced by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, runs through April 7, 2024, at the Avalon Theater, 1500 Lake Street E., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Playwright: Oanh Vu; Director: Kurt Hunter; Table Puppet Fabricators: Oanh Vu and Andrew Young with support from Kurt Hunter; Shadow Puppet Fabricators: Leyen Trang, Andrew Young; Set Design: Steve Ackerman, Orren Fen; Lighting Design: Heidi Eckwall; Puppet Costume Design: Karly Gesine Bergmann; Sound Design: Mike Hallenbeck; Music Composer: Charlie McCarron; Translation and Consultant: Denise Hanh Huynh. Stage Manager: Kate Peters.

Cast: Sofia Padilla, Oanh Vu, Tri Vo, Andrew Young.