Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

"Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle"

by The Bread & Puppet Theatre

Directed by Peter Schumann
(with a cast of three-dozen or so)

Sour dough indeed.
During performance of the "Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle" two men hastily got up from the strew and sprawl of devotees on black pillows on the floor of the Cyclorama and left. That was shortly after the word "slaughter" turned up in Peter Schumann's litany/harrangue about Gaza. Perhaps they were offended. Peter Schumann has been offended by wars of any kind, anywhere, for three or four decades now --- I encountered him first harranguing Nixon about Viet Nam --- and if his words or pictures gave offense, Schumann probably considered that a victory.

What Bread & Puppet does, has done for three or four decades, falls between what Peter Brook called either Rough Theater or Holy Theater --- probably depending on your political orientation. The music introducing and accompanying pieces is loudly, brashly rhythmical. In the Gaza piece, for instance, Schumann literally sawed across a violin between shouted speeches, each accompanied by a sketch in slashing black-on-white in a style resembling Picasso's "Guernica." Through the piece, the assembled large cast of local volunteers each held a piece of paper, on which were written, they said, the names of children who died in the Gaza incursion.

That was only one piece, however, and a B&P show, like a circus, is a sequence of differing acts. There was, for instance, a sort of square proscenium from under whose white curtain a white Pierrot-figure peeped, then crawled out --- immediately menaced by a big pointing-arm that came down and nearly crushed him, Monty-Python style. The figure seemed alive, yet was manipulated by two figures totally muffled in black, a hand of each thrust into Pierrot's sleeves and gloves. The occasionally lively curtain and the figure were illuminated by a light on a pole thrust about by another figure in black standing to the side. Ultimately, one black manipulator slipped its feet into the figure's slippers, burst out of the frame, and made the loose doll dance --- before it crawled back under the curtain.

One of the joys of B&P is that the rough manipulations of often monumental puppets are always visible, as a part of the illusion. Speeches are secondary to symbols here, and the deliberately crude styles and jarring absurdities mask a serious subtlety of message.

The emphasis in a B&P show is on spectacle --- frowning gum'mint or business "suits" twenty feet high, manipulated on poles; crowds deliberately choral-singing off-key; a Rube-Goldbergian clock-thingie that wound a spring to throw a hammer to strike a bell signalling a change of pace; and a large, enthusiastic N'Orleans-style Jass-Band with a gyrating second-line. (I must confess when they burst into Phil Ochs' "One-two-three-four, what're we fightin' for?" I burst into uncontrollable, nostalgic tears.)

As coda to the series of bits, volunteers (all dressed as bakers in white with white chef's hats) held unveiled at waist height a long, circular banner, which they slowly and rhythmically pulled, revealing the words "We're all in the same boat" --- while above them, hung from a single mast, a tall black-and-white sail bobbed and swirled and fluttered as though buffeted by dangerous winds. Pictures here resembled both children's stick-figures, and Durer's "Dance of Death".

And then, everyone who wanted was fed bread --- good, solid, tangy bread. There was no wine, but to some of us a Schumann show is wine enough.
And the bread is Good!


"Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle" (26 January - 1 February)
@ Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617)426.5000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide