Bread and Puppet Theater
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 11, 2005
This was my first experience at a Bread and Puppet Theater event. I was impressed by the potency of the experience; and surprised that it moved me in ways very different than I was expecting.
The company, founded more than 40 years ago, is still run by Peter Schumann, who creates their shows in collaboration with the ensemble as well as directs and designs them, including sculpting and painting the enormous masks and puppets that are their trademark. Wow—these pieces are stunning: visually arresting in and of themselves, and also visceral evidences of Bread and Puppet's credo that art must be populist (i.e., readily available, cheap, and for everybody). So an impressionistically carved and painted piece of wood turns into a donkey leading a plow in one sequence. Masses of goons (the shadowy, underdetailed human-sized puppets shown in the background of the photo at the top of this page) stand in for populations from ancient times and nowadays, and morph, in groupings, into twin towers and a renegade aircraft intent on toppling them.
Most of this year's Bread and Puppet offering—titled "The National Circus and Passion of the Correct Moment"—is performed in silence (or with some spare musical accompaniment) by actors wielding or encased within these remarkable puppets and masks. The eloquence of these mute monsters re-enacting scenes of warfare and destruction is pretty powerful. In one sequence, a passel of well-dressed, highly placed puppets watch helplessly and haughtily as some kind of natural disaster—a tsunami, maybe, or a hurricane—rages in front of them. When survivors climb out from under the devastation and reach out for a helping hand, the establishment puppets throw fake and useless "hands" at them and then quickly exit. In another segment, armies wielding pots and pans as weapons advance and retreat in a seemingly endless cycle of battle until everybody on both sides falls down dead—only to rise up and start over again.
The evening begins, on a somewhat lighter note, with the "circus" portion of the show, which includes Schumann as Uncle Sam on stilts higher than any I've ever seen in my life, a literalization of the meeting between two "great ladies"—Truth and the New York Times, and the "Rotten Idea Theater Company" in three pointedly satirical blackout sketches that made me laugh out loud.
The evening ends, after nearly an hour of solemn, deliberate exploration of what Schumann calls the "Correct Moment" (i.e., where things are in our world right now), with a call for insurrection. It's a grand finale, but almost touchingly naive; though the ugliness and perils of the "Correct Moment" have been amply demonstrated, the show nevertheless fails to jolt us headlong into activist mode, instead leaving us—or me anyway—feeling nostalgic and a little melancholy that the lively energy that protest street theatre ought to stir up in a sympathetic crowd just doesn't seem to exist any more. Why is that, I wonder?