By : Stephen Grigelevich
3 min read
Leftists of all ages packed the pews at the First Congregational Church in Harvard Square late last month. Downstage left, a giant, powdery white papier-maché ear stood as if to memorialize some absurd event. The Bread and Puppet Theater company began its show with a solemn and moving, dirge-like vocal piece. One by one, four of the nine actors fed a piece of paper into a slot in the giant ear, before receiving it back and holding it to the audience. A collective humn replied, knowingly. “Ukraine.” “Yemen.” “Palestine.” “Afghanistan.” The ninety minute performance, titled Finished Waiting, was rehearsed this winter on the old Vermont dairy farm that the iconoclastic troupe calls home. Prominently featuring founder and playwright Peter Schumann’s woodcuts and associated poetry, the largely silent performance featured sequences that combined the use of dance, lighting, percussion and cello, and of course, puppets to communicate the state of our world, both ecologically and socially, and to echo notes of our collective humanity.
The Cambridge show was part of Bread and Puppet’s spring tour, which concludes on April 3rd with a performance in Portland, ME. For almost 60 years, Bread and Puppet has fostered an international community with its brand of absurdist, political street theater. In contrast to their street performances, though, Finished Waiting felt largely contained and even a bit hollow. Much of the performance was marked by slow, silent action. Dressed in all white, the nine actors floated around in life size, gaunt and ghastly puppets that appeared to encase each of its operators like the front of a sarcophagus. Some puppets resembled gigantic faces; others were mounted to bed sheets and paraded around as reliefs. Though consistently intrigued, a few times I wished the play would move more quickly, or would be more varied in tone or mood. Afterwards, I wondered if I had fallen right into their trap, having told myself during the play, “Enough is enough. I’m finished waiting.”
All night, the troupe made use of raw sensory displays such as intense lighting, loud bangs, and short dance sequences to deliver messages to its audience. I found that the piece was at its most powerful when communicating abstractly rather than representationally. Perhaps, like me, the politicized audience was less moved, and less motivated to action, by the listing of significant places, events, and actions, as by the communication of visceral experience. In any case, the play understood this distinction quite well. The haunting ghost sounds, the gigantic ear, the introductory speech on essentialism vs. non-essentialism, and the short interpretive dance pieces all communicated what a linear, plot driven piece of theater could not have done as effectively. The performance showed that hearing, “war kills innocent civilians” can actually have less of an impact on us than hearing screams and moans, or seeing bodies contort and flail about on stage. The show ended as all Bread and Puppet performances do, with lively conversation and the eating of home cooked bread!
* Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper April #145 2022
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