Review: “The Paper Hat Game”

by Joe Kellen

"The Paper Hat Game" had me falling in love with public transport. If you know me, this is completely out of character and you are probably assuming I am lying.

I am not lying.

When I walked into Open Eye Figure Theater yesterday evening, I knew that Torry Bend had something interesting planned for us. The entire stage was covered by a large black wall with a rectangular hole in the middle of it. Inside this hole was a string of letters reading “The Paper Hat Game” and a projection of an urban train rushing by. I immediately noticed the sound design — the hustle and bustle of big city transit reverberated around the entire space, and before the show even began, a sense of place was instilled.

This clarity of location continued throughout the experience. “The Paper Hat Game” used live projections, puppeteers, voiceovers and found footage from walking along the streets of many American cities, the most important of which being Chicago. It’s the place where Scotty Iseri, the “Paper Hat Guy,” started what would eventually become the subject of this show.

The piece begins with an overview of Chicago’s connectedness. With an effortlessly beautiful lighting design by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew, we were greeted with images of glowing electrical cables, pipes carrying water and voyeuristic peeks into the apartments that use these resources. Everyone’s living in the same infrastructure, but it’s clear that these people are isolated. From the get go, the audience is presented with a world whose inhabitants live very close together, but have nothing to do with each other.

This is where Iseri comes in. He’s the main character of the show, represented by some phenomenal puppeteers (Jess Jones, Julia Vanarsdale Miller, Sam Deutsch, Summer Puente and Monét Noelle Marshall). We watch him as he goes through the detailed city streets, making paper hats and handing them out on trains. The story is his quest to bring playfulness and connection to the people of Chicago through a simple game, and the result is a compelling, elegant delight.

“The Paper Hat Game” envelops its audience with kaleidoscopic imagery, vaulting Iseri’s lively figure through a world of puppeteer-operated rail lines and cityscapes. Mixing live puppetry with video projections, these rail lines could carry actual images of the L Train sliding across the skyline. Video designer Raquel Salvatella de Prada does a brilliant job of layering the footage with the countless other aspects of the show. At any one moment we could see all of the designers working in conjunction with one another. For example, one of the most magical images of the night was when one of Iseri’s paper hats was opened by a pair of human hands to reveal a shining cluster of stars. We could hear them twinkle and it was as if we were genuinely peering into a different universe.

These layers delineate a simple and beautiful story, which is where the show gets its power. The narrative never pulls any punches — its visuals drive the action forward deliberately and charmingly, always pulling its audience along for the ride. With a short run time of about 45 minutes, “The Paper Hat Game” doesn’t have much time to meander. It’s a well-oiled machine that communicates the depths of human connection with sparse dialogue. That’s not an easy accomplishment.

I left the theater with a post-show buzz, instilled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the city around me. It made me notice things on the bus ride home that I wouldn’t usually notice — detailings on the seats, what the people around me were doing, how the streets flowed by outside the window — “The Paper Hat Game” had influenced the way I saw my environment. All I have to say after realizing this? Go see this show. You’ve got til 4:00 PM.