Bread and Puppet Theater
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
November 29, 2007
[Editor's Note: This year, Bread and Puppet Theatre is presenting The Divine Reality Comedy (their night-time show, for adults) and The Divine Reality Comedy Circus (their afternoon show, for kids and families). Lois Spangler reviewed the former for nytheatre.com, while Loren Noveck reviewed the latter.]
The Divine Reality Comedy
reviewed by Lois Spangler
The Divine Reality Comedy is Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater's retelling of Dante's Divina Commedia, but aside from loosely following the structure of the Italian work, there are few similarities to be had.
Unlike Dante's story, we begin in Paradise, filled with souls who are inculcated from birth to buy, buy, buy, and filled with indistinguishable, sheep-like people who almost rise up against faceless authority (played to eerily strong effect by a pair of big, black cardboard boots). We are led on our tour by a boorish, masked Santa Claus, who happily tells us of the customs and practices of Paradise, and what we should be wary of upon visiting. The music here is lively and fun—a full band marches and plays, and when they're not playing instruments they're out on the floor as part of a crowd or operating puppets. And the puppets themselves are very simple—cardboard cutouts, flimsy and incredibly resourceful at the same time, painted beautifully.
After a brief stop in Post-Paradise, whose role in the show I didn't quite understand but which involves a lovely scene of dancing white horses, we arrive in Purgatory. Santa doesn't join us, but we do hear the stories of those who are trapped in the limbo of Indefinite Detention—a horrible euphemism that describes unjust imprisonment. There are no puppets here, just paintings on fabric of shadows, and somber narration. The overall effect is beautiful and moving, though discomfiting. There is little or no music at all in this section.
Our brief stay in Purgatory sets us up—but doesn't prepare us for—Inferno. Which is Guantanamo itself. Small figurines are extracted from the skirts of an enormous and beautiful puppet, a robed man with a sunlike face; the figurines are brought to witness—or participate in—an interrogation session whose text is taken directly from an article in Time magazine. Later we witness, in slow and excruciating detail, the torture of three separate detainees. Aside from the interrogation scene, held over a makeshift table, all the figures in Inferno are costumed and masked, almost puppets in their own right.
The positives about this show are strong—the imagery is beautiful, the music is fantastic, and the sense of resourcefulness and community in the performance is irresistible. Included among the players are local volunteers, and music emerges from bass drums, trombones, clarinets, fiddles, and accordions worked by the players themselves, when they're not onstage as parts of a crowd, or operating puppets.
However, that said, for me the show doesn't stick closely enough to the structure of Dante's work to call itself "a new translation." Though it does match La Divina Commedia in terms of biting social commentary, Santa is not enough of an allegory for Virgil, even with the audience playing Dante's role, and though I understand why we end with hell for this rendition, hell is where we begin in Dante's original work.
But what really clinched matters for me were two things: pacing, and the lack of a ray of hope. Pacing is slow through much of the show, and for the most part I felt it worked; you have the chance to get a good look at the puppets, at the postures of the people arrayed on stage. It offers time for the imagery—the poetry of the imagery—to sink in. But when we're in the Inferno of Guantanamo, witnessing the three torture sessions is agonizing. Everything is done in slow motion, and though I got the distinct feeling each session represented something different, I couldn't quite discern what those differences were.
Which makes the lack of any out, of any ray of hope, all the more brutal. There's no shot at redemption—there's not even a call to action. The whole piece, by the end, feels like a condemnation of the audience, an indictment: you let this happen; you are perpetrating this. I have no problems with indictments so long as they offer some kind of solution, and we don't get that, not one reflection on what might be any redeeming quality of humanity.
I believe The Divine Reality Comedy is worth watching; it makes you face and think about things that are extremely difficult, but without question need addressing. There is real love in the performance—every player seems clearly dedicated to the company, to the show, to their roles in it, to the message it delivers. And moments in it are truly beautiful, which makes the contrast of the brutality depicted in the final section of the show all the more powerful.
Just don't go in thinking it's a comedy, and don't go expecting to feel uplifted when you leave.
The Divine Reality Comedy Circus
reviewed by Loren Noveck
The Divine Reality Comedy Circus doesn't have a whole lot to do with The Divine Comedy, as far as I can see, but it is a whirlwind way to introduce children to a series of progressive political opinions involving a lot of wonderful animal puppets—or, for those too young to grasp the politics, simply an elaborate and inventive puppet show.
And really, as one might have expected, it's all about the puppets—a marvelous array of life-size animals, domestic and wild. If the politics can seem at times a little simplistic (understandable given a children's audience), trite, or not entirely appropriate for children (a slate with a count of the Iraqi war dead?), the puppets never disappoint. There's a troupe of white horses that dance around the ringmaster. There's a singing barnyard full of sheep, chickens, and one large cow, tended by a farmer and farmer's wife in giant papier-mâché heads, representing the good of family farming. There's a pair of agile tigers representing climate change taught to do tricks by a tamer, whom they eventually turn on and devour (an ending that, although stylized, seemed to me perhaps a little grisly for small children). There are swooping birds bearing torpedoes, big headless suits representing the government, and a gigantic—much greater than life-size—walking tuxedo.
There's also a brief nod to the season in a wandering, dancing Santa (played, I believe, by Schumann himself), and some terrific stilt-walking performances, including a set so terrifyingly tall that their wearer's head was about seven feet above the painted backdrops.
All of this is performed by a group that mixes the Bread and Puppet troupe with an array of local volunteers of all ages (the youngest child couldn't have been more than three), who fill both the cast and the versatile band (mostly brass and percussion, with occasional piccolo or accordion, and a constant shuffle of musicians into actors and vice versa).I wasn't able to find a child to bring to the show, but those around me seemed to be having a good time, especially when there were animals in the mix. And the children in the performance were having the best time of all—so if your kid loves being onstage as much as being in the audience, you might want to join the show!