The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
December 5, 2008
I had to sift my way through a brass band of chefs before I even had my ticket at the Bread and Puppet Theater's The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus performed at Theater for the New City. Directed by Peter Schumann and performed primarily by a group of volunteers, the show moves from this ensemble of chefs playing follow-the-leader to scenes featuring some fantastic puppets, all accompanied by live music.
From the initial silence of the theatre, the procession of brass instruments from outside slowly becomes audible, then visible, and a great deal of excitement and exuberance enters the space along with it. The method of storytelling during the ensemble of chefs section is distinct, with each piece of the story followed by a jumbled group sound or movement. An older man, director Peter Schumann donning a clown nose, orchestrates much of the action. There is a surprising amount of freedom and playfulness from the group as a narrator flips through the pages of a large book about how false democracy is implemented.
Huge, impressive, towering puppets of old men in suits grumble and hubbub their way onto the stage as the first moment of puppetry. These gigantic wrinkled bureaucrats lean over intimidatingly and glare at the audience, causing a few audience members to raise their hands a little in fear of the massive politicians collapsing. The giants reside at the sides of the stage to watch the remainder of the performance.
The middle part of the show is a succession of "chapters" that switch between vignettes in white and red sections, only one of which would be open at a time. Each chapter title is dwelled upon with its own dramatic music. In the white section, a white puppet sits in his white room and reads the newspaper, plays a tiny piano, types on a typewriter, or has tea, and converses with his offstage wife. All his actions affect the red section, containing a number of darker puppets, who may be raking, or huddling in terror of the toy plane created by the white puppet, which has turned into a real plane when it reaches them. The white puppet is oblivious or ambivalent to the result of his actions. Eventually the white puppet has a crisis while trying to drink tea, one of the most intense and engaging moments in the piece, and then erupts into a glorious dance.
There is also an "implementation machine," which dramatically cranks and then smacks a gong with a hammer before certain significant actions occur.
For the finale, a yo-hoing ship precariously waves its sail over the audience, and a scrolling side of the ship reads "we are all in the same boat" followed by dancing skeletons reminiscent of the aesthetic from the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos.
Some wonderful moments are created, but the production overall lacks cohesion. A statement from Bread and Puppet says the play "is about the need for human fermentation....Our republic teases us with the possibility of democracy, but citizens are raised like military apple orchards...the show is run by a bunch of cooks, specialists in cooking the various stews and pancakes of our everyday first world existence." Is the objective of the first-world cooks to reveal the need for fermentation? The white puppet who dances after his tea cup crisis is shortly thereafter crushed by a large hand. Whether this dance is in fact this particular individual's fermentation, but he is for some reason too late and needs to be crushed, or whether the crushing is somehow the fulfillment of his fermentation remains unclear. It seems more likely his final punishment for neglecting to take into consideration the repercussions of his actions. What is clear, is the disregard of the wealthy—who sit idly about engaged in inane activities—for their effects on the unsuspecting poor. I was unable to discern where the fermentation occurred, unless it lay in the revelation of this cruel absurdity, as a call to conscience.
The sheer ambition of having a show run by volunteers, the exceptional design of the puppets, and their stunning manipulation are undoubtedly an accomplishment, as well as the commendable objectives of this production and the Bread and Puppet Theater generally. An indictment of the first world's lack of humanity calls for no clearer philosophical justification, so what the show lacks in a clear logic or progression it makes up for in substance.
After the show, there was some great handmade "cheap art" available, and the audience was served bread with aioli, which was very delicious.