Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bread and Puppet

By Katherine Knight

A couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see a performance by the legendary political art and theater troupe, Bread and Puppet. I love Bread and Puppet, and have loved them for years. In fact, Love may be a bit of an understatement. I have revered them, internet-stalked their work, and ripped off their construction techniques. Despite this, I have seen them in person only once before; and that was more of a parade than a proper show. This past Saturday, therefore, was my first opportunity to see them in full swing, and I was not disappointed.

The show was held in the sanctuary of St Stephens Episcopal Church in Mt Pleasant, NW DC. I was struck by character of the crowd before even entering the building. There was a generous helping of crunchy hippies and pseudo-hippies (of course), but also a large contingent of normal people. Not DC politicos, hill-staffers, hipsters, hustlers, or fashionistas; but actual, bona-fied normal people, of all ages and races, with their sensible shoes, wooly sweaters, and kids. They didn’t seem to be trying to convince anyone that they were important, or cooler than they were; they just seemed to have showed up for a good time. It was a huge relief and such a pleasant (and sadly scarce) environment to experience. It was a great way to start the evening.

The performance itself was entitled Divine Reality Comedy Circus, and took place in front of a large and delightfully crude painted landscape which was lit cabaret-style from below by cheep hardware store clip-on ‘foot lights’. The performance began with a brief and rollicking musical interlude; which was a poignant moment in itself. The event was sponsored by ‘Hear Mt Pleasant’, a group fighting a neighborhood ordinance against live music, which was passed without consent of the residents, and was specifically designed to target Mt Pleasant’s large Latino community. What followed was ninety minutes of pithy, campy, ironic, politically charged, hilarious and wonderful puppet genius.

On its most basic level, the show was an organizational masterpiece. The cast consisted of 9 or 10 individuals who were constantly on the move, and who all participated as musicians, dancers, narrators, masked characters, and puppeteers at different points in the show. During one memorable sketch, for example, the words ‘When A Government Resorts To Violence It Is The People’s Right To ABOLISH It’ (or something along those lines; I may be paraphrasing) each appeared emblazoned on an individual, life-sized burlap donkey, who strode one-by-one across the stage to a saucy march played by the multi-piece band. When each puppeteer finished their rotation as a donkey, they would dash backstage, loose the donkey, pick up an instrument, and join the band -literally seconds later and without missing a beat- before their fellow donkeys had even finished spelling out the sentence. The entire sketch must have taken less than two minutes.

In fact, the majority of the show was so seamless that further evidence of careful forethought and planning was well concealed. What prevailed was a glorious sense of slap-dash spontaneity, where everything there is to love about puppetry shone through. Only the transparent and unapologetic use of commonplace materials could allow for that moment of pure magic when a group of cardboard be-decked burlap sacks transforms into an utterly believable choir of warbling turkeys; or when a fifty-foot scarf waved above the heads of the crowd on a long pole is so unexpected, ethereal, and beautiful that the experience reminds us of our humanity. It was poetic, and almost medieval in its simplicity; a low-tech and humbling moment of awe.

This is not to say that the performance was completely without problems, but they were few, and were, for me anyway, mostly to do with the content. Bread and Puppet is overwhelmingly liberal, and although I am pretty liberal myself, and was aware of the issues fore-fronted by the sketches, there were times when the message was either so vague or so convoluted that it was lost on even me. Why was that buzzard conducting those computer monitors? And what exactly do the Tigers of Complacency signify? Oh, who cares; wow aren’t they cool? Did you see them roll over? Oooooo, now they’re eating that guy! And here come his little felt guts flying around from back stage! Neato!

Fortunately, the sketches that were spot-on far outweighed the ones that were confusing. The oversized potato-faced Rotten Idea Players succinctly summed up our political system as follows:
On Health-care
Republican: Problem? What problem? (hides issue behind his back)
Democrat: This is a very important issue! (laughs manically and hides issue behind back)
Third party: begins to say something coherent but is silenced by a mighty WHACK from both Republican and Democrat.

On Education:
Republican: Problem? What problem? (hides issue behind his back)
Democrat: This is a very important issue! (laughs manically and hides issue behind back)
Third party: begins to say something coherent but is again silenced by a WHACK from the others.

… and again with environmental reform, repairs to the national infrastructure, torture, etc, etc, etc.

Since this was billed as a kid-friendly show, and since kids were encouraged to sit on the floor right in front of the stage (actually, I sat there too…), I found myself wondering precisely what the kids would take away from this experience. On Local Issues, the message was pretty clear: Corporate farming = BAD. Local produce will keep you from falling over (demonstrated by a guy on stilts!) AND local farmers care more about their livestock… they even teach their turkeys to sing! Tap water is 1000 times cheaper than bottled water and uses less resources (Don’t be a sap, drink from the tap!). When arguing with your neighbors, don’t run out of words or you might accidentally shoot them instead. All good advice- if a little quirky. Advice on the broader issues was harder to pin down: Abolish the violent government! You can tame the Tigers of Complacency, but they will ultimately eat you! If you ignore bombs, they will multiply (apparently of their own accord) and take over! Again, all good points, but what should we do instead? If we let our Tigers of Complacency go, won’t they eat us all the sooner? We can’t just get rid of them because they’re so cute! And how exactly does one abolish a government, and what do we have instead? Granted, I am thinking way too hard about this. The overriding message is good: think for yourself, be fair, and act locally; but in some cases I kept remembering the potato-faced Democrat quipping ‘this is a very important issue!’ without ever doing anything about it.

Hold on. These are only puppets after all, and maybe (for puppets, not democrats) it’s enough to simply raise awareness. Maybe it’s enough to plant these little seeds and let the audience nurture them for themselves; and after all they did provide some very solid advice on issues where we can actually affect change. Maybe those kids will go home and bug their parents about buying bottled water, and maybe some of them will tell their friends about it, and those friends will bug their parents, too. Maybe some of those kids will remember the message of non-violence if and when they are ever courted by gangs. It seems outrageous, but then I remembered that my life long obsession with conservation and the environment all began when my fourth grade teacher read me a book. Seeing this performance reminded me of a time when I believed that activism could actually accomplish something; before five years living in our Nation’s Capitol turned me into a cynical, pessimistic, complacent tiger myself. Maybe art, and puppets, and children’s books can change the world after all. Why the hell not.

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