Z is for zen, P is for puppets

Using yoga, puppetry and bumbling playfulness, Z Puppets aims to give audiences the experience of calm with “Monkey Mind Pirates.”

Dave DeGennaro and Shari Aronson pose for a portrait with their cast of pirate puppets at the Moreland School in West St. Paul.

Image by Cole Feagler

Dave DeGennaro and Shari Aronson pose for a portrait with their cast of pirate puppets at the Moreland School in West St. Paul.

by Joe Kellen

Chris Griffith and Shari Aronson are married, but they’re always going to live in a love triangle.

That third person isn’t a person at all — it could be a ping pong ball, a pirate chimp or whatever creature their minds can conjure — it’s puppetry.

“Puppets have this purity to them, they’re honest,” Griffith said. “People can interact with them in ways they could never interact with actors.”

In 1998, the couple decided to found a company centered on their passion, Z Puppets. Since then, they’ve received accolades from all over the puppetry community, including support from the Jim Henson Foundation. Griffith and Aronson primarily create works for children, though they have always attempted to create detailed and inviting worlds for audiences of all ages.

“Kids don’t want to be condescended to,” Aronson said. “We don’t really think that our work is exclusively aimed at them, either — we want to let everyone in on what we do.”

Their latest production, “Monkey Mind Pirates,” takes on the theme of anxiety and mindfulness. It follows the journey of Captain Fitz (David DeGennaro) and his “quest for calm.” His ship gets overtaken by the dastardly Monkey Mind Pirates who distract Fitz from his goal with negativity, panic and scurvy for the soul.

Goofiness and a giant heart are at the core of the show, though this doesn’t mean the puppet peddlers aren’t serious about their message. Before each “Monkey Mind Pirates” performance, there is a yoga workshop presented for the audience.

This way, when Fitz finds his way to inner peace with the classic “Om” mantra, the kids have something physical to hold on to.

The devious and furry pirates are charming, nonetheless. With a little help from DeGennaro, who also serves as music director, “Monkey Mind Pirates” has a relentless catchiness that’s as endearing as any “Muppet Show” tune.

“I’ve been working with Shari and Chris for seven years now,” DeGennaro said. “I’ve found that my favorite thing about these projects is the opportunity to be playful and sometimes irreverent with these kids.”

As far as this puppet collective is concerned, that irreverence and openness gives way to trusting, receptive audiences.

 “Families approach us and tell us they use our work all the time in their homes,” Aronson said. “A lot of kids deal with this on a daily basis but have no outlet for it.”

Though Z Puppets doesn’t market their shows as a children’s songbook for anxiety issues, Aronson said that one of the larger goals of this piece is to encourage children to establish a vocabulary for any struggles they’re having.

“It’s rewarding because we’re helping to create strategies for people,” Griffith said.

Z Puppets tours Minnesota year round, performing at schools, libraries and anywhere they can. Advocacy is just as important to them as bringing their passion to life — a fact that keeps them moving from city to city.

“We like to have fun and remember that we could all use a little play,” Griffith said.


What: “Monkey Mind Pirates”
When: 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 S. Third Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: Free