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Masters of Puppets 

Montreal's Theatre de l'Oeil brings the sparkling Star Keeper to town

As you exit the theater after a performance by Cirque du Soleil or dance troupe Momix, the real world looks different -- fresher, maybe. That's because certain species of well-executed theater, designed to transport you to another world, have done their job as thoroughly as a Philip K. Dick novel. The journey was wild, entrancing and seamless. Returning to this Earth throws you for a loop.

The time has come to add another group to the list: Montreal's Theatre de l'Oeil and their puppet production extraordinaire, The Star Keeper.

The Star Keeper is performed in an almost completely dark theater, with only meager spotlighting of the stage action. Using a mixture of marionettes and rod and shadow puppets -- some small, some appearing bigger than the stage -- the puppeteers tell the story of a star that has fallen to the ground. Pretzel, our hero, has no idea that putting it back will require a perilous journey during which he'll encounter a giant, a tap-dancing spider, a giraffe, a mermaid and an octopus.

The illusions that Theatre de l'Oeil is able to pull off are remarkable: An old man plugs in an electrical cord to light up the night sky with the stars and the moon; a giraffelike creature, so large that only its legs and lowered head are visible, comes to play; underwater scenes of glowing fish are lit in such a way that they effectively fool l'oeil; an old lady flies, up, up, up through the roof, the sky and the heavens. The action is enhanced by a complete lack of spoken dialogue and by dreamy music composed especially for the production.

Making the magic happen are puppeteer Graham Soul and three cohorts. It's hard to believe that only four people are necessary to create everything we see in The Star Keeper. Occasionally we can catch a glimpse of a figure clad completely in black velvet, including gloves and a mesh mask, sneaking around behind the puppets. The ambitious show requires that "the [marionette] manipulators are on sort of a bridge up above and most of the other puppets are worked from behind," says Soul. Moving from the bridge to the stage and back in the dark, while wearing masks, is done by way of a set of stairs that is, Soul says, "practically vertical" -- it's a tricky proposition.

Seeing puppets that range from the size of a football to bigger than a man in a very dark environment may confuse your sense of scale. It can be hard for audience members to tell the true size of puppets and props on the stage. "The audience is not quite sure what the sizes of things are and eventually can't remember how big the puppeteers are," says Soul. "There's often a comment that people think we look enormous, which, I suspect, is because the opening of the [puppet] stage is quite small."

The Star Keeper is a Little Nemo-style journey of dreams that dazzles. Given that this is Theatre de l'Oeil's first stop in the Midwest in 28 years of existence, you will probably never see anything like it again.

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