Robsham Celebrates 50 Years Of Bread and Puppet Theater
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 16, 2013 13:09
“And the King called for the great warrior
And the great warrior fought the dragon
And the great warrior killed the dragon
And then the great warrior killed the KING.”
The drama in these lines speaks for itself, yet the puppets, costumes, and music in Bread and Puppet’s 50th Anniversary Cabaret at RobshamTheater on Saturday presented the drama even more directly to the audience’s eyes and ears. The performance was a highlight of the day-long celebration of the Bread and Puppet Theater’s five decades of work in political theater, consisting of five short plays that spanned the history of the populist theater founded in New York’s Lower East Side in 1963.
It is interesting, although a tease for those who did not attend the event, how the title of a play always reveals too little about its contents. With the title King Story, one could hardly expect the lines at the beginning of this article. Nevertheless, perhaps the purpose of Bread and Puppet is to surprise, or even unsettle, the audience and thus encourage them to think about the more “troublesome” issues that this country was, is, and will be facing.
One of the most intriguing elements in the show was the variety of sounds being produced—percussions, brass, the narrator’s ever-changing tone, the screams, and, most unforgettable of all, the minute-long silence at the end of A Man Says Goodbye To His Mother, a piece first created in the 1960s in response to the Vietnam War. “Silence” here is no exaggeration. One could hear nothing but the occasional coughs in the audience. Later in his talk with organizer John Bell, Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater, explained this extended silence as an opportunity for the audience to understand the performance as they process their memories of earlier plots and even earlier plays. “No guidelines, no verbal assistance, no commentary, only absence of that,” Schumann said, “and the liberty [for the audience] to clearly get it.”
At the beginning of the last play, Courage, one of the performers gave warnings of the blurring of boundaries between those onstage and those in the audience. And this did happen, as all were invited to flap their “wings” and join a “courage to fly” tutorial session. One can tell from their laughter and applause that the audiences were very much entertained.
There seemed to be more, however, to the “blurred boundaries” than pure entertainment. Notably, this made it impossible for the viewers to stand aloof like an onlooker or an observer to the events being discussed or alluded to, especially since, like one of the performers, Lindsay Love, said, “the same things are still going on in the world right now.”
The intimacy between stage and audience was not a characteristic of Courage only, but evident throughout the evening’s performance. One could see the puppeteers moving, putting on masks and gathering their props behind the small piece of fabric that was the “screen.” There was the unexpected occasion, for example, when the three puppeteers controlling “the dragon” pulled the costumes off and revealed their identities in broad stage light, and the more thoroughly unforeseen occasion when an actress stepped on a pair of scissors left on stage earlier. These little “accidents,” deliberate or not, reminded the audience that they were watching real, ordinary people expressing what they believe and not just a film being played on a screen, beyond which things are intangible and surreal.
Although bread is the first of the three elements involved in the name of the company (Peter Schumann also noted how the theater is called “Bread and Puppet” instead of the other way around) and also in the title of this article, it is being discussed at the end. This is in mild protest of the fact that bread was served after the evening’s performance, while in most Bread and Puppet shows, the bread comes first, and the chewing process is expected to go on during the play. The Bread and Puppet tradition—the tradition of “sublime arsekicking puppetry” and eating bread together—has been going on for 50 years, and it will go on, like Love said, to “make comments on the world and try to make adifference.”