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Fertile Ground Diaries: “The Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan” Is a Puppet Show for Grown-Ups

The play features ingenuous puppetry that the script doesn't quite match.

When we first meet puppet Paul Bunyan, the narrators (Robert Amico and Sullivan Mackintosh) inform us that he can fit a whole moose in his pocket. Right on cue, an ingenious miniature moose puppet nuzzles its way through the forest of tiny trees erected across the stage at the Mister Theater. Paul creeps out from the cave he lives in, lunges for the moose—and misses.

If The Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan were a different flavor of family theatre, I might have given in to my impulse to shout, "Put it in your pocket!" But no such audience participation was invited, and after a silent chase sequence that left the attention of the children in the audience wandering, the moose escaped.

The Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan features charming puppetry whose cleverness the script never quite matches. It slips into the awkward gap between children's theatre and adult fare, lacking the pace or punch required to really engage children, but also avoids the complexity that would pull in adults.

However, the puppets (designed by Amico, who co-wrote the script with director Keziah Peterson) are really lovely, crafted in a Bunraku-inspired style and expressively handled by the show's four actors (Amico, Mackintosh, Platon Hogan, and Daniel Considine). They provide a delightful way of depicting staples of the Paul Bunyan legend like Babe the Blue Ox, the expansive timber forests that Paul labors to chop down, and Paul's size in comparison to the ordinary humans they meet.

While moments like the moose are endearing, it's a shame such ingenuity isn't applied to bringing to life some of Bunyan's most famous adventures: digging the Grand Canyon, stamping out the Thousand Lakes, or his larger-than-life pancake griddle—that the play only alludes to.

It’s possible Bunyan fans will find more to sink their teeth into here, but at the very least, Amico’s designs and the company’s work are worth a look. 
Fertile Ground runs until Jan. 29. For the full schedule, go to fertilegroundpdx.org. $50 festival passes, individual tickets available.