“Look for the cobra on the green door. Follow the cobras inside.”
In a gloomy October when the rains seem like they’ll never stop, following a trail of poisonous snakes into the headquarters of a magic- and death-themed puppet show somehow seems reasonable. Entering a former industrial warehouse-turned-art space in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, I’m greeted by tray after tray of warm, home-cooked dishes, dozens of wool- and Carhartt-bundled artists, and a lone, clumsy black puppy.
“There’s some amazing food if you’re hungry,” offers Daniel Polsfuss, BareBones board member and de facto media liaison, materializing out of a sea of cardboard and ghost-white cat masks and half-built butterflies and unbloomed paper flowers.
Yep. These are fairy-tale people, for sure.
Once upon a time, Alison Heimstead decided to translate her experience with the MayDay Parade (and some “super crazy and gruesome haunted hayrides”) into a senior thesis in studio art at the University of Minnesota, one involving an outdoor, large-scale puppet production. A quarter-century later, her college project has grown into BareBones: a spectacle of wonder, loss, and healing tucked beneath the giant oaks of St. Paul’s Hidden Falls Regional Park that’s attended by more than 6,700 people annually.
Powered by magic and no small bit of chaos, BareBones is wildly successful despite being completely different each year. Demonic fire dancers are a fixture; sometimes there are aerialists. Stilted puppets and bicycle-powered maniacs are a given, even as giant, glowing bears and plodding skeletons can never be dismissed as a possibility.
Not knowing is a big part of the fun. That arresting beauty will rise from the darkness, however, is a guarantee.
The BareBones of today is a community-driven arts nonprofit very much born of its city. Heimstead is at the helm with collaborator Mark Safford, who’s participated in every show to date, and the production is accompanied by a jangly orchestra scored by Venus DeMars (of All the Pretty Horses). But it’s staffed by a cast and crew of about 350—only 15 percent of whom are compensated for their passion. The rest pitch in out of love, often returning for decades on end. Each year’s earnings—all suggested donations, collected at the “door”—overwhelmingly determine the following year’s production budget.
This year’s show, co-directed by Malia Burkhart and Tara Fahey, addresses the multifaceted nature of “ancestors,” a source of strength and empathy for so many, in a moment when we may need to dig deep to find such things.
Though the productions vary in theme and tone—united in levity in spite of what would seem to be an overwhelming trend toward darkness—they’re always family-friendly. In converting the Sumerian legend of Inanna’s descent into Hell into a political rock opera, they included a cavalcade of monkeys rushing in, having mistaken chants of “Free Inanna!” for “Free Bananas!” A few years ago, they produced a stunning, near-scientific meditation on evolution and the preciousness of life featuring skeletal dinosaurs and a sea of jellyfish that still haunts its creators’ dreams—in the best way possible.
In a looping quest to pinpoint when, exactly, the show found its current location at Hidden Falls (11 years ago), Safford lovingly regales us with memories of a quintessential BareBones production, repeatedly calling it “Babyhead”—not the production’s official name, for the record—about the World of the Dead wanting Life in it. The scene is set with a tragic prologue: A meteor strikes a woman’s pumpkin house, causing it to glow. For the rest of the show, the King and his rats attempt to appease the Queen of the Dead’s lust for Life. “They bring Life cereal, they bring life preservers....”
Hijinks ensue, and eventually, the King pukes up a baby head. Here Heimstead chimes in: “They were trying to get rid of it, and it would just keep coming back bigger and bigger, until in the end it was massive.” (Think: a baby head 40 feet in circumference, 16 feet tall.)
No one can stifle their laughter. It’s so funny despite the darkness. The balance is perfect.
“Yeah, it was hilarious,” laughs Safford.
Then, he turns on a dime: “The theme that year was, really clearly, unresolved grief.”
That’s the thing with BareBones: On the surface, these plays seem like weird, twinkly puppet frippery. But more subtly, the shows offer a space for coming to terms with loss, via their creators’ sometimes very personal tales dressed up in safe, fairy tale structures.
Neither Heimstead nor Safford is shy about this element. Using new co-directors each year maintains the show’s narrative freshness, and helps to strike a balance between heavy and light subject matter. It’s also no accident that the shows coincide with the pagan festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest: The wooded stage begins verdant, before dying around the company during rehearsals.
“It’s really intense in Minnesota. We’ve talked about that a lot over the years, just how freaky winter is,” says Heimstead. BareBones is a way “to be more in tune with that, as people. The ritual of that: letting go of summer and going into the cold and darkness of the year.”
Burkhart continues: “I know for a lot of people, [BareBones has] become part of their yearly way of processing both winter and deaths that have occurred recently, and beloveds that have passed away. Especially the Calling of the Names.”
Toward the end of each show, there’s a quiet moment in which the audience can call out the names of those who have been lost, in remembrance, if they so choose.
Tears are shed as Heimstead and Safford recall times creators carried songs and phrases from BareBones to dying loved ones, saying the show gave them tools to process grief and find comfort in the hardest moments of their lives.
“In American and Western culture, people aren’t allowed space or honoring of that in their lives,” says co-diretor Fahey. “I think with this show, we provide that space for people. That’s a really amazing and powerful thing to hold in community.”
That’s a lot for a puppet show to pull off. But maybe it’s not so much if we consider BareBones as a deceptively ancient set of stories, reborn again and again to teach us about real-life magic, and how big, scary things... needn’t be.
25th Anniversary Halloween Extravaganza presents
“Boneseed: Mist Stories”
When: Oct. 19-21, 26-28, and 31 at 7 p.m. (gates open at 6:30 p.m.)
Where:Hidden Falls Regional Park
Details: Admission is pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $20. There will be limited seating on straw bales; bringing blankets or chairs is encouraged.
Transportation: Carpooling and bike riding is strongly suggested as parking is limited in the park. On street parking in the neighborhood is available.
Want to get involved? Check BareBones’ website & Facebook for updates.
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