Once upon a time, before Pillow Pets and Webkinz roamed the earth, there were puppets. Big ones and small ones. Some on sticks and some on strings. All with a story to tell.

Just when you thought the old-fashioned playthings had gone the way of the dinosaur, they’re back — and more captivating than ever. The fun in Chicago centers on The Elephant & The Whale, a can’t-miss shadow puppet collaboration between Chicago Children’s Theatre and Redmoon, opening April 10. In honor of the production, we’re shining the spotlight on puppet-themed fun all across town, from the stage to a play space to a hands-on workshop.

elephant

On the stage:

The Elephant & The Whale
Call it fantastical. Call it lyrical. Or call it just plain awesome. In this show from Chicago Children’s Theatre and Redmoon, wooden puppets, shadow puppets and storyboard art merge in one big exciting tableau. The story follows the adventures of an elephant, a captured homesick whale and a villainous circus owner, and has overarching themes of friendship and freedom. The first act draws on the centuries-old practice of the Italian cantastoria, a retelling of history in music and illustrations. Actors sing, interact and pedal a three-seat bicycle that unfurls a large scroll; the scroll tells a backstory through storyboard art. The second act takes the action to steamer trunks that open to reveal elaborately painted wooden puppets. The third act is a clever mash-up of tradition and technology as actors manipulate live shadow puppets alongside pre-recorded video footage of them. It all has a vintage, haunting aesthetic that will put you firmly in the land of make-believe and make you reluctant to come back.

VIP tip: Fill up on free pre-show pizza and juice on Thursday nights and join the puppet-crafting after-parties on Friday nights. Glimpse the genius of artists Michael Coon, Matt Cipov and Andrea Everman and a trailer of the show on the Chicago Children’s Theatre website.

Runs April 10-May 26
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn St.
$25-$36; group discount rates available
Tickets at 872-222-9555 or online at chicagochildrenstheatre.org.

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On the street:

Puppetbike
This traveling show brings puppets to the people by way of a mini theater box rigged to a bike. Look for it parked on random street corners; lately, the contraption has been stationed in Andersonville at the corner of Clark Street and Berwyn Avenue every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, weather permitting. But its appearance is never certain and its operators are elusive, which is all part of the mystery and charm. Created by local dad Jason Trusty, the show’s endearing cast of characters look like the fuzzy animal hand puppets of our youth. On the Puppetbike website the characters are introduced with reality TV-esque bios; look for Lefty the Tiger (aka: “trust fund baby”) and Monkee (whose hobbies include teaching yoga). Along with cracking wise, these puppets like to rock out to feel-good music that cranks from the box. Indeed, Puppetbike is the silver lining in the clouds known to dominate Chicago’s skyline.

VIP tip: If you’re lucky enough to spot Puppetbike, have your little one knock on the trap door to hand off a well-earned dollar; a character will appear and gladly take it off your hands.

Appears on select weekends on the corner of Clark Street & Berwyn Avenue
Online at puppetbike.com

lillstreet

Behind the scenes:

Lillstreet Art Center Puppets Summer Camp
What’s summer without drama? On the last day of this camp, parents watch a puppet play put on by campers. Prior to that, kids spend the week fashioning puppets from fabric, clay, gauze and recycled household items. Teachers encourage open-ended exploration, so making anything from a wombat to Batman puppet is fair game. Also, collaboration is key, and imaginative teams might brainstorm themes (wombat-fighting superheroes, perhaps?). Even the set design and stage are handmade by the campers.

VIP tip: Working parents, rejoice: When you register online, you can add After Camp Care (3:30-5:30 pm daily) for an additional $60.

Camp held June 17-21 from 9:00 am-3:30 pm daily
Recommended for kids ages 5-8
Cost for members $320; non-members $325
4401 N. Ravenswood Ave.
773-769-4226 or register online.

kooka

At a play space:

Kookaburra Play Cafe
Let your pint-sized puppeteer channel her inner Geppetto while you kick back with a coffee. This Lincoln Park play space has a sizeable collection of puppets for creative alter-ego exploration. Culturally diverse Melissa and Doug characters include a doctor, cowgirl, king, queen and more. Like other stations in the play area, the puppet theater rotates on and off the floor depending on the season and popularity. If you don’t see the puppets, ask a staff member to procure them for you. Anything in the sprawling space, from tables to the play kitchen to an impromptu Lego fort can serve as a stage. The jungle gym and dollhouse will keep your puppet fan busy long after the show is done. (More time for you to enjoy that coffee.)

VIP tip: A story time series employing the puppet troupe is in the works; check the website for details.

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2267 N. Clybourn St.
Admission fee is $12/child, $7/sibling, noncrawlers free with drink purchase
Open Mon.-Fri. 9:00 am -5:00 pm, Sat. 9:00 am-12:00 pm, closed Sun.
773-281-5400 or online at kookaburraplaycafe.com.

If your kiddo put on a puppet show, what would it be about?

— Selena Kohng

Photos: Courtesy of Chicago Children’s Theatre, “Puppet Bike Guy” Facebook page, Lillstreet Art Center, Kookaburra Play Cafe