TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of Iranian art lovers gave a troupe of Chicago-based puppeteers flowers and a lengthy standing ovation at the Tehran City Theater at the end of their historic performance this week during a rare visit by American performers to the Islamic Republic.
The artists from the Manual Cinema group presented Ada/Ava, a live cinematic shadow puppet show at the Tehran Mobarak Puppet Festival, in the first such performance by an American troupe at the Tehran event in nearly 17 years.
"You are the best audience we have ever had and met. We have been so impressed by all the artists and puppeteers here," Drew Dir, the co-director of the 10-member group, told the audience after the performance.
Visits by American artists are very rare in Iran because of the bad relations between the two countries, which have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1979, when militant students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostages for 444 days.
The puppeteers' story is set in New England and uses the fantastic and supernatural to explore mourning, melancholy and the self.
It portrays the bereavement of Ada, a septuagenarian, for her twin sister Ava and her solitary existence after a life built for two.
Sarah Fornace, one of the troupe's members, said she was surprised by the standing ovation.
"It is a real honor and it does not happen all the time. So I felt really lucky to get one here," she said.
The presence of the group in at the festival led to another rare event — an American flag was hoisted over the entrance gate of the City Theater building in downtown Tehran.
Saeed Leilaz, a Tehran-based political analyst believed the American attendance at the puppet show was an indication of improving relations after decades of mistrust.
"People on both side have no particular problem with each other," he said. "Iranians in general and the middle class in particular seek better ties with the United States."
It was the first performance by the group outside the United States .The Ada/Ava show has been on the stage in the U.S since 2011. The performers arrived on Monday and will leave on Sunday.
There will be 47 shows in the festival, including eight foreign ones from the United States, Afghanistan, Armenia, China, Germany, Netherlands, Serbia and Spain.
The festival began its activities in 1989.
"I was surprised that an American group attended the festival. It is a very positive move," said Rahman Bayani a 32-year-old engineer who was in the audience. "It is very good indicating there is friendship between the nations."