Puppeteers' 'Paper Cities' will rise again at San Diego Fringe Festival

“Paper Cities” is a multimedia puppet production that’s like nothing you’ve seen before. An ongoing work-in-progress by “hybrid puppeteers” Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree, its seventh variation was recently staged at Bread & Salt in Logan Heights. Now “Paper Cities: Variation 8” is coming to the upcoming San Diego International Fringe Festival, where it will offer five performances at the downtown Spreckels Complex, June 24-July 3.

In the beginning, there was the workshop version. In 2013, Gunn and Rountree, co-founders of the alt-puppet theater Animal Cracker Conspiracy, both received Creative Catalyst Grants from the San Diego Foundation. Iain’s project — with Bridget collaborating, and La Jolla Playhouse as sponsor — was the first incarnation of “Paper Cities,” presented at the Playhouse in June, 2014.

The show, according to its creators, transforms the story of urban development — a mash-up of commerce, architecture and politics — into poetry, movement and sound. Questioning the precarious foundations on which our manmade world has been constructed, it asks: Have we lost our connection to nature? How can we survive the onrushing megalopolis?

What “Paper Cities” really is: it’s compelling, uncategorizable theater, a delight to the eye, ear and mind. The original workshop production was wordless, with pre-recorded music. The later variations, directed by Liam Clancy, head of the Graduate Dance program at UC San Diego, are both freer and more fully developed, and now include violinist/sound designer Kristopher Apple onstage with Rountree and Gunn — an excellent addition to the already strong team of two.

The show is a magical mix of unusual puppets, oversized masks, cardboard construction cranes, animated saws, flying stick-birds, toppled towers of books, live-in suitcases, coyote calls, an actual paper city, poetry in words and motion, fragments of real and imagined family histories, and filmed projections. And a one-woman clean-up crew, because “no mess is too big to clean up.”

And there’s audience participation, too. If it happens. Because no two performances are exactly alike. “The elements are the same, but how we get there changes,” Rountree said. After several years with “Paper Cities,” they’re improvising more, and feeling comfortable about it.

“The show is like masala, the mixture of Indian spices,” said Gunn. “We keep folding new things in, and trusting that something good will emerge.”

Rountree added, “it becomes a collaboration between us and the audience. It feels more real, and more risky, so much better than just saying something about the environment, and about cities.”

There’s a line from a Joyce Carol Oates’ essay in “The Profane Art” that refers to “a didactic... sensibility in the service of an anarchic imagination.” Seeing “Paper Cities 7” recently brought that quote to mind. Half the audience that night stayed for the talkback, and all were enthusiastic, asked really good questions and made interesting comments, including the youngest, about 10 years old.

After the Fringe Festival, PC goes on tour; a website is planned, so you’ll be able to follow the show’s adventures online. But don’t miss seeing it live, real and risky, at the Fringe.

IF YOU GO: San Diego International Fringe Festival presents “Animal Cracker Conspiracy’s Paper Cities: Variation 8,” 6 p.m. June 24, 11:30 a.m. June 25, 9 p.m. June 28, 4 p.m. July 2, and 7:30 p.m. July 3 at RAW SPACE in the Spreckels Complex, 921 1st Ave., San Diego. Tickets and full schedule: $10 at sdfringe.org

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