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Puppet Parables

Theater Review: How to Turn Distress into Success

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As a newly minted Vermonter, I made my first pilgrimage to Bread & Puppet Theater's fabled farm in Glover last Sunday. I knew about it, of course; anyone who's studied the development of alternative theater in the last half-century does. And I moved here this spring from Philadelphia, where scores of "puppetistas" were arrested during the 2000 Republican National Convention for doing what B&P founder Peter Schumann has been doing for decades: using masks and giant puppets to make political statements that transcend words.

But just being aware of Bread & Puppet's influence is not the same as going to the source. My chief task was to review How to Turn Distress into Success, a performance piece by B&P which was presented to acclaim in Paris this spring and which made its Vermont debut on Sunday. Presented in the group's barn-like theater space, it was preceded by the usual array of outdoor festivities -- sideshows, a circus and the serving of bread.

The circus, Schumann told the audience, will undergo some changes before next week, so I'm reporting on a combination of events that may not be replicated exactly. But that's part of the appeal of any B&P performance, I suspect: the sense that within a carefully but loosely defined structure each moment is being invented as we're watching it -- a once-in-a-lifetime alchemy.

At the same time, there is a sense of everything moving according to a master plan. The scrawled signage, the "Cheap Art" gallery-in-a-bus, the unhurried progress from one event to another -- the elements seem almost haphazard, but in fact reflect a single controlling aesthetic: a belief in the primal power of handmade things.

Nowhere is that power more in evidence than in the Bread & Puppet Museum. Housed in the 1863 barn original to the farm property, the collection is an astonishing testament to the beauty, variety and sheer volume of artwork created by Schumann and his disciples over the last 40 years. On Sunday, his wife Elka led a tour of the museum before the sideshows began. Her candor was disarming.

"Now that we're not rich and famous, we're legendary," she said, reflecting on Bread & Puppet's shift (in the eyes of certain critics and festival curators) from cutting edge to old guard. She recounted the fate of the wildly popular Domestic Resurrection Circus, the summer spectacle Schumann cancelled five years ago after crowd-control problems culminated in a fatal fight. And she explained B&P's involvement in protests and pageants past.

Almost every inch of the barn is crammed with puppets, masks, reliefs, friezes: "Peter has a horror of a vacuum," said Elka. The interior reminds some observers of a cathedral; the masks themselves variously suggest Easter Island, Modigliani, Punch and Judy. Tableaux are arranged to suggest specific performances frozen in time, and it is a credit to Schumann and his fellow artisans that all the characters -- Mother Earth, Uncle Fatso, the rumpled Garbagemen and hard-working Washerwomen -- seem alive even in repose.

But it's at the sideshows that they really come to life. Back in Domestic Resurrection days, sideshows would crop up at multiple locales in the meadow and surrounding woods; this Sunday, there was only one location (mid-meadow) and one simple red-drape backdrop. I saw two shows. The first was "The King's Story," a B&P classic that makes a riveting anti-militarist statement through the simplest of parables: Fearing a dragon, a king hires a great warrior who turns his powers against the king and his people and is himself conquered by death.

The king and his subjects are rod puppets gracefully manipulated by puppeteers behind the drape; the warrior moves with measured, ominous force. In the second show, the exuberant, white-clad intern troupe took us through a series of pictographs and group recitations -- including a chicken-soup recipe sung as a round -- about how to live one's life, culminating in what must be a key B&P credo: "Protest and Survive!"

Peter Schumann, also in white and wearing a straw hat, acted as a kind of pied piper, blowing on two horns and announcing that the "Victory Over Everything Circus" was about to begin. Some of the performers regrouped into a surprisingly swingin' Dixieland band in front of the B&P bus. Then the rest of the troupe reappeared on the hill behind us, playing kazoos. Led by the mustachioed, potbellied Mayor and carrying signs saying "Victor," they marched into the circus ring and through a handheld arch of triumph.

A jaded child muttered, "They do that every time." Maybe so, but to my newbie eyes this was a socko beginning -- a surprising, swaggering set-up for the show and its satirical target: the forces that feed our hunger to win and to consume, even as we destroy ourselves in the process.

Two animal acts, with multi-person puppets as the animals and actors as the trainers, illustrated the point particularly well: Ms. Deflation and the Zebras of Consumer Confidence, who morphed into prisoners with shopping-bag heads, and Ms. Ecological Crisis and Her Tigers of Consumption, who wound up leaping through the EPA loophole and chasing their own tails before swallowing up Ms. Crisis. In another brief but vivid skit, the National Nation Construction Company, with its spunky yellow bulldozer, demonstrated how to leave countries worse off than they were before.

The "American Hero" game-show segment offered congratulations to a "Republocrat" senator: "He bravely voted for the war and ignored his conscience!" In a brilliant little dig at FCC deregulation, a majorette from AOL Time-Warner's National Truth Orchestra tried to silence the Community Information Jam, but the audience, literally all ears, had other ideas. And in a truly magical moment, a team of blue and white horses galloped by.

At the conclusion, Schumann entered as Uncle Sam on stilts, to the tune of "When the Saints Come Marchin' In," then made a point of telling the crowd that B&P interns had put the circus together in just five days. I'm not sure whether he meant that remark as a compliment or an excuse; in any case, it seemed in line with the statement he made about changing the circus before next week.

I hope it won't be changed too much. There was a try-anything inventiveness about "Victory Over Every-thing" that may well have been the direct result of time constraints, and it would be a shame to sacrifice that free-wheeling spirit for a more polished product. In fact, I missed that spontaneity a bit in How to Turn Distress Into Success. After the open-hearted, relaxed atmosphere of the circus and the sharing of fresh-baked bread, it was kind of a letdown to be crowded into a more controlled environment and placed in the role of Audience, albeit on wooden bleachers in a barn with a dirt floor. And, because the circus was fast-paced and full of surprises, its zingers zinged more sharply; Distress, a dissection of how a government convinces its citizens to support war, builds its case so deliberately that it's easier to predict how the argument will turn out.

That said, the clarity of its allegory packs a cumulative punch, and some of the images are unforgettable. It's a Pilgrim's Progress of sorts, except that the Pilgrim is a passive vessel, a puppet Student of Success. He is carted onstage to be given a lesson by a professorial emcee on how to turn distress -- say, an attack on twin skyscrapers -- into something happier, like the creation of an enemy.

A female Truth figure in a yellow, stringy wig wheels in a baby carriage marked Population; when the towers go down, the baby carriage is toppled and demons are released. Business-suited men with big white heads use a Rube Goldbergian contraption to show how easily a Friend can be transformed into an Enemy, then grab hold of Truth like butchers dismembering cattle. The tears fall from Truth's mask and become drumsticks -- a stunning coup de theatre.

In an extraordinary final image, nine huge women's heads slowly move into the playing space. Using a flip chart, the professor explains the difference between the terrorist and the horrorist, Truth takes off her mask and the mothers gradually retreat.

On Sunday, at the moment the baby carriage toppled, an infant in the audience wailed with terrifying timeliness, and its mother awkwardly made an exit, maneuvering an unwieldy sliding barn door. I couldn't help thinking, "This wouldn't have happened if we'd been outside."

Just one afternoon of Bread & Puppet au naturel and I was already getting testy about theater indoors.

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