Review of Penguin in my Pocket from the Puppetry Journal Summer 2019

Marionettes. They come with certain expectations. The puppets will be hung to avoid tangles. There will be a pre-set elevated stage for ease of audience viewing. But with Penguin in My Pocket, Kurt Hunter defies expectations and brings the magic of imagination (and engineering) to the puppetry stage. Well, to be clear, Kurt Hunter also brought the puppetry stage—and everything else for his show— inside of his big brown coat.

Armed only with a concertina, Hunter strolls onto the stage wearing a brown, oversized coat with yellow fringe, a yellow bowtie and a matching train conductor hat. He draws the audience in immediately with his Wallace Shawn-like charm, playing a simple tune as he leads them in an anthem that says so little, but means so much:

          Imagine, your dreams can really happen

          Imagine, the world you can create

          Imagine a penguin in your pocket,

          Can you imagine? I can.

This isn’t just lip service. From that moment, Hunter begins a journey into imagination and ingenuity that has audiences gasping in awe.

The theatre stage is empty except for Hunter and a black open trunk, turned on its side. As Hunter tries to recall where he has left his puppet stage, audience members sit, mouths agape, as from his coat, Hunter pulls out a playboard, then a step stool, then scenery (with a door!) and finally, puppets. Stringed marionettes. In his POCKET!!!!

Hunter introduces an adorable monkey and his forest friends, including a colorful bird and a butterfly who can lift the monkey into the air with her strong wings. Their peaceful life is interrupted by a penguin with a jetpack who crash lands on their island. With her jetpack broken, the penguin can no longer fly, so the animals work together to try to return the penguin home, weaving engineering terms into their witty banter.

As the story unfolds, Hunter seamlessly breaks the fourth wall, encouraging the audience to sing along to his imagination song with every new turn. He communicates about what the audience is seeing and how it is achieved; yet one can’t help but wonder, “how is he doing that?” At one point, Hunter brings several audience members onstage to create water by waving sheer, blue fabric. He warns the audience of a monster that lives in the water, and proceeds to pull flat, parachute fabric from his coat. To the shock of the audience, the red monster fully inflates (arms and all!) with only the up and down force of his hands. Hunter hands the monster to waiting audience volunteers who perform alongside him as miniature versions of his marionettes ride in a boat and swim through the water.

Just when the show seems to have reached its full potential of surprises, the monkey and penguin appear above the set in a hot air balloon. The concept seems simple enough; puppeteer suspends characters from a pole, animating them with his hands. But instead, the audience gasps as Hunter appears from behind the set, squeezing the concertina with both hands while the hot air balloon is suspended from a curved pole attached to his back. Science, technology, engineering, arts and math combined in one charmingly simple tale. Magical. Genius. Inspiring. Can you imagine? I can.

—Jamie Donmoyer