Politics and Protest in Papier-Mâché Heads
By DANIEL M. GOLD
Published: December 12, 2011
Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet company, a staple of the Off Off Broadway calendar for 40 years, is a refreshing reminder of the vitality and power of street theater. Part carnival, part protest, all pageant, Bread and Puppet productions express political outrage and satire, sometimes coarse and raw.
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Using outsize papier-mâché heads and intricate masks and costumes, the shows offer a funhouse-mirror reality. Narration is barked through a megaphone, and words are usually secondary to the music: loud beats of a drum, cymbal or gong, backing Mr. Schumann’s screechy violin and razzy kazoo. Plots are mostly sketchy, but images nestle firmly in memory. There isn’t a lot of nuance in a cartoon.
Now at the Theater for the New City, the company, based in Glover, Vt., is offering a program of two works. (It is also presenting a separate show for young audiences called “Man = Carrot Circus.”) The first, “Attica,” revives a piece Mr. Schumann first created in the weeks following the notorious 1971 riot at that prison and its aftermath; a giant-headed governor is undisturbed by the bloody resolution he orders, while a “gentleman angel” hovers over a prisoner’s corpse.
A new work, “Man of Flesh & Cardboard,” is an extended howl at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army private now imprisoned for more than 18 months on charges that he provided government files, including a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad, to WikiLeaks. (On Friday, a day before Private Manning’s 24th birthday, he will have his first public hearing: the military equivalent of a grand jury will be convened to determine whether prosecutors may proceed with his court-martial.)
Much is inscrutable in “Man of Flesh & Cardboard,” which presumes a great deal about the case. At times two women portray a Private Manning and a Soldier Manning. News organizations — embodied as an old, compliant woman — are indicted for being credulous and complicit with the military. At one point, figures clad in black pirouette with their arms extended, like the posed prisoner in Abu Ghraib; at another, cardboard skeletons share a dance of death.
Now in his 70s, Mr. Schumann shows that he remains urgently invested in the politics of the age. In introductory comments to the audience, he calls Private Manning a prisoner “for having committed the crime of exposing war crimes.”