Bread and Puppet Theater
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
December 4, 2009
Since the early 1960s, the Bread and Puppet Theatre has been creating drama that is at once both performance spectacle and agitprop circus. Dedicated to creating politically and socially conscious art that is available to all, their theatre is one of imagery, and at the Theatre for the New City right now, there are some pretty spectacular images on stage.
This year's show, Tear Open the Door of Heaven, essentially functions as a series of vignettes interrupted by a different series of dances, or "interventions," performed by the Lubberland National Dance Co. It begins the night with a strong piece. The prologue, called "Xmasstory," features company founder Peter Schumann alone, surrounded on all sides by crudely painted scenes of what is either the apocalypse, or the rapture, or both. It is a brief though powerfully honest scene that attempts to strip away the sentimentality surrounding the rise of the savior figure, as well as our historical devotion to such people. Schumann, scooting around amongst his set of painted cardboard, looks very much like the street philosopher who wants nothing more than to warn us of the end times. But instead of ranting and foaming, Schumann's audience is confronted with a slow, methodical, and incredibly simple piece that, before we know it, has transformed into something that challenges the blind following of the "heroes" among us.
The remainder of the show, with one exception, is unfortunately never as clear or direct in its intention. The images and puppets are something to behold, but the sum total of the scenes and dances never reaches beyond "corporate greed bad, organized religion not much better." There is, however, one exception to this. It is an incredibly powerful series of scenes dealing with the violence of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In a particularly moving moment, called the "Dance of the Foolish Woman," Schumann and Company are at their most provocative. A woman, old and ragged yet graceful, performs a dance in an attempt to raise the children killed in the conflict, represented on stage by toddler-sized pillows. It is a stunning use of the puppetry form. The hard, papier-mache face of the dancing woman never permits a change in her expression of horror, allowing the most primal elements of her pain to surge forth. Without the normal array of the actor's emotive tics to get in the way, the deep emotion of the woman is more fully, and directly, expressed, forcing her audience to confront the true cost of war.
The play concludes with a rather large and spectacular example of what Bread and Puppet can do given some raw materials and inspiration. Reaching to the top of the cavernous space, it is this kind of imagery, along with his commitment to accessible and challenging art, that has afforded Peter Schumann's group a special place in American theatre. And while the text of Tear Open the Door of Heaven could use some clarification and purpose, enough time is given to the puppets and imagery that some very critical messages are still able to shine through.