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Riotous Grrrls

Dressed for excess, a daughter of Bread and Puppet stages a feminist fest of her own


Published March 7, 2001 at 6:20 p.m.

Cowgirls and superheroines are a far cry from bread and puppets, but the source is the same — sort of — in a show coming next week to Club Metronome. In Shed, Glover-based director Tamar Schumann combines elements of dance, music and traditional theater to create an expressionist work that is feminist and political. From the eldest daughter of Bread and Puppet founders Peter and Elka Schumann, the dance melodrama proves you don’t grow up in a “circus” without learning a few tricks.

But you would never have come across foul-mouthed females wrangling with lesbian love in the ring at Bread and Puppet. Or a corresponding trio of glamorous gals in gowns plotting an anarchist-feminist ecotopia. While they share basic political ideology and an appreciation for the absurd, when it comes to style and staging, Schumann and her famous father are worlds apart.

The Grand Terrestrial Regions is the imaginary setting for one of the two parallel stories held together by dance and song. Schumann sees nothing incongruous about three drunken big-sky babes launching into an a cappella version of a Georgian folk song. That’s the Republic of Georgia, by the way. The only thing that really connects the ruling power trio and cowgirl saga of unrequited infatuation is the fact that they are played by the same three fast-changing women: Alexis Smith, Nessa Rabin and Maria Schumann — Tamar’s younger sister.

“They are different sides of me,” Schumann says of the two tales, which feature what you might call iconic, or archetypal, women. “One is dysfunctional, not really doing anything. The other is goal-oriented, high-minded, productive and cooperative.” The only man in the piece, Caleb Creavan, functions as a kind of “invasion,” as Schumann puts it. His brief encounters with the girl groups on stage are as a Bible salesman, a jilted boyfriend, a double-crossing phone-repair man and a getaway guy with a van.

None of the action is meant to be taken literally, of course. Or linearly. Shed just sort of unfolds, although it is fully scripted and choreographed. The way in which the superheroines move — in model-like “vogueing” poses that have nothing to do with what they are saying — is particularly unusual. But are their haughty postures meant to be a critique of so-called “femininity” or a celebration of it? In an evening devoted to the music of Madonna, which also features local rocker Peg Tassey, that is certainly up for interpretation.

One local critic noted, “Shed may be unique in agitprop theater in that it is frankly self-reflective, applying a theatricalized psychoanalysis to its own politics. It does this hilariously, through a merciless baring of the human frailties of its characters. The vaudeville dance-theater postures of the hyperdressed women, with gestures ironically timed and synchronized in comic absurdity, underscore and very effectively undermine the ultra-enunciated lingo of their revolutionary ideology.”

Sure, whatever. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the show. Shed has already developed a following in central Vermont, as a result of a series of “episodes” Schumann presented at the Plainfield Town Hall over the fall and winter. A recent performance at the Compost Art Center in Hardwick also drew an enthusiastic crowd. The show has the same over-the-top appeal as did Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, which developed a cult-like following in a Burlington bar several years ago.

Shed was first presented 10 years ago in San Francisco, as a response to the Gulf War. Given the outcome of the recent presidential election, Schumann suggests the “good girls, bad boys” theme still applies. “But it’s not pointedly about Bush,” she says.

Dividing her time over the last two decades among New York, Vermont and San Francisco, Schumann takes a lighter-handed approach to political theater than does Bread and Puppet. Her repertoire includes Bluebeard, a show about depression and defiance set to the music of Doris Day and Violetta Parra, as well as Utopia and Psychotherapy, which considers male rites of passage in Vietnam War films.

Schumann says her father appreciates and supports her work. “He likes the fact that it’s not derivative of what he does. So much of what he sees is too close,” she says. “It’s rooted in the political theater he created, but it’s not using his solutions. I remember early on making a conscious decision, ‘no puppets,’ opting for the personal and political as opposed to the abstract political. Now it’s natural.”

Interestingly, her artistic independence — and the demise of the annual Domestic Resurrection Circus — has drawn Schumann back to Bread and Puppet. She is currently working on a “vast archival” film about the theater troupe, and went to Germany to work with citizen performers in conjunction with an exhibit at the World’s Fair Expo. “The circus thing is over, so it’s sort of decentralized,” she says. “I can be more part of it at this point… It’s a legacy.”