Bread & Puppet’s imagery packs political punch
The late Howard Zinn, no slouch when it came to delivering broadsides against the status quo, once lauded the “magic, beauty, and power’’ that Bread & Puppet Theater has brought to that same task for nearly half a century.
Over the weekend, Bread & Puppet stopped in at the Cyclorama for its annual visit to Boston. With “Tear Open the Door of Heaven,’’ the troupe offered its trademark mixture of live performers, puppetry, politics and protest, but this time religion was added to the mix.
When you hear “puppets,’’ you may think of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Bert and Ernie, or Shari Lewis’s Lamb Chop. This isn’t remotely like that. Bread & Puppet’s creations resemble the ancient stone heads on Easter Island, somehow mobilized to enact allegorical rituals. The imposing, blurred mystery of these giant, papier-mâché visages gave “Tear Open the Door of Heaven’’ an air of timelessness, as if it spoke not just with the contemporary voice of opposition but also the voice of antiquity.
Founder and artistic director Peter Schumann once described his troupe’s work as “the art you make in response to circumstances and politics.’’ Since war and environmental destruction are, alas, perennial circumstances on this planet of ours, Schumann and his puppeteers skewered those human follies with particular zest.
As for the art they make in response, it is simultaneously imaginative and easy (sometimes too easy) to grasp, a cleverly nuanced display of visual artistry one moment and a very blunt instrument the next. Bread & Puppet works in broad strokes, making Big Statements from an unrepentantly counterculture perspective, trying to harness the primal power of a venerable medium to deliver a political message.
The narration of the sketches in “Tear Open’’ sometimes has a deadpan, faux-naif effectiveness (“Brutality has to be organized in statistically comprehensible amounts’’) but too often it relies on a lapel-grabbing obviousness, when it’s not sounding like a bad Allen Ginsberg imitation (“Religion is physical therapy for the damaged soul, and whose soul is not damaged by history?’’ a narrator intones at one point).
It is the imagery created by Bread & Puppet, not the words, that has a way of penetrating to the essence of its themes with the immediacy of spontaneous street theater and the staying power of art.
“The Peaceloving War Mongers,’’ for example, presented a kind of slow-motion ballet that hauntingly reminded us that war, whatever its causes or justifications, invariably becomes a slaughter of innocents. The “Boston Rush Hour Crowd Forest Admiration Dance,’’ was a beguiling and amusing commentary on the pell-mell pace and the heedlessness of contemporary life. “Stargazers and Money Artists’’ lampooned capitalism, while “Mountaintop Removal’’ depicted the bludgeoning into submission of dissenters, followed by a “deforestation dance to create parking for the deforesters.’’
A sketch titled “Serious Window’’ featured a 20-foot-tall, godlike figure with a copper-colored head, at the bottom of whose torso reposed several chattering figures in white. Were they meant to represent angels, or hapless humanity? (The show’s stated, albeit tongue-in-cheek, goal was to show “Heaven and its effects on the underneath.’’)
The Bread & Puppet touring company that performed at the Cyclorama featured 10 puppeteers, including Schumann, plus a cadre of Boston-area volunteers who performed “dance interventions’’ throughout the show, led by company member Maura Gahan. The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band established a jaunty pre-show mood.
There was nothing jaunty about the murals Bread & Puppet had installed at the rear of the performance space, but they certainly had a button-pushing vividness all their own. One, with a host of contorted faces looking upward and, to judge by their expressions, finding no comfort, evoked “Guernica.’’ One showed bodies hurtling to earth. And one mural depicted human figures trapped between a burning city and an array of tanks.
That, broadly speaking, has been the mission of Bread & Puppet Theater since it was founded in the early 1960s: to speak for the humanity caught and often crushed in that in-between space. A people’s history, indeed - and still adding defiant new chapters. Somewhere, Howard Zinn is smiling.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.