Theater Review: Bread & Puppet’s “Whatforward Circus” — Agit-Prop, But Imaginative

Bread & Puppet Theater’s world of anthropomorphized trees, talking toilets, and dancing circus horses is often funny, sometimes beautiful, and always memorable.

Whatforward Circus, written and performed by Bread & Puppet Theater. Directed by Peter Schumann. At the Cambridge Common, Cambridge, MA on September 4. Check the company’s website for tour dates, which include a performance at The Theater for the New City, 155 1st Avenue in New York, NY., on December 4.

A scene from Bread & Puppet's production of "Whatforward Circus." Photo: Ian Thal.

A scene from Bread & Puppet Theater’s production of “Whatforward Circus.” Photo: Ian Thal.

By Ian Thal

A large painted cloth backdrop gently rippled in the breeze on a Sunday afternoon on the Cambridge common, one of a number of flags and banners announcing that the venerable Bread & Puppet Theater had brought one of its circuses to town. The backdrop featured the picture of a bucolic Vermont mountain landscape dominated by a seated figure. The image was captioned “I am the U.S. Statue of Greenery.”

What has set B&P apart from other purveyors of agit-prop theater for over half a century is founder and artistic director Peter Schumann’s raucous visual sensibility, his transformation of such base materials as cardboard, papier-mâché, cloth, and paint into magical theatrical images. This rough-hewn aesthetic almost seems to put B&P’s “Existing Better World” (as George Dennison called it in his book about the Bread & Puppet Theater) within our grasp. Schumann’s antic world of anthropomorphized trees, talking toilets, and dancing circus horses is often funny, sometimes beautiful, and always memorable. While Schumann cites dramatist/poet Bertolt Brecht as a major influence (his relationship with Brecht’s heirs is thorny), his art’s embrace of primitivism is not really about estranging audiences from their bourgeois perspective. It is an anti-modernist revival of pre-modern political and religious pageantry. If one buys into B&P’s utopian imagery, Whatforward Circus isn’t about commenting on or critiquing the world around us — it is about dismissing the way we live now as stupid, corrupt, and evil.

While B&P is one of the few high profile theater companies that regularly address environmental destruction, Whatforward Circus doesn’t offer much that is new to the genre. For the umpteenth time, black-clad mustache-twirling capitalists in stovepipe hats, sometimes on stilts, sometimes aided by Uncle Fatso (B&P’s personification of capitalism, imperialism, and the U.S. Government) dedicate themselves to tearing down precious forests for short term economic gain. Occasionally, Schumann shakes things up by providing some opposition from nature sprites or brave environmental activists. Could it be that B&P thinks its audiences are incapable of being bored by a tired cliché? The truth is that freshening up protest narrative has never been a strong point for Schumann. The save-the-earth message is better communicated in Dr. Seuss’ 1971 classic, The Lorax.

During a sketch on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the puppeteers raise giant brown cardboard fists, an image calculated to generate nostalgia from those on the left, particularly those who hunger for solidarity. But that is about all the gesture accomplishes — there’s no sense of tragedy or political ridicule. Are there any African-Americans among the B&P performers or in the band? It was hard to tell. Perhaps is is time for the white savior complex to be satirized.

The #BlackLivesMatter bit is typical of much of what went in Whatforward Circus. Topics that called for farce, drama, or satire were reduced to feel-good images and naïve dichotomies. For example, there was a sketch about the recent takeover of Puerto Rico’s finances by a Congressionally appointed Fiscal Control Board. Yes, it is amusing to see the U.S. territory depicted as a weight-lifter being crushed under the twin barbells of “debt” and “colonization.” And the Control Board, seen as an aerobics class dressed in spandex, is also worth a chuckle. But one comes away with little understanding of how the $72 billion debt came about, how much suffering it caused, and what the restructuring means for the quality of life of the Puerto Rican people. A generation that came of age with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show expects to be given some information when a news story is lampooned. All Schumann offers is stupid villains and innocent victims.

Likewise, a beautiful tableau, a tribute to a Honduran environmental and indigenous people activist murdered by the military (following the 2009 coup d’etat), is staged purely as an attack on Hilary Clinton. The episode draws on an oft-repeated conspiracy theory currently popular with the anti-Clinton left (signs promoting Green Party candidate Jill Stein were much in evidence). The suggestion is that Clinton, while Secretary of State, supported the coup. This charge is made despite the fact that the U.S. suspended military aid and Clinton attempted to negotiate a return of deposed president Manuel Zaleya.

Photo: Ian Thal

A scene from Bread & Puppet Theater’s production of “Whatforward Circus.” Photo: Ian Thal.

Schumann’s cartoon manichaeanism again plays out in a skit whose title, “A Palestinian Dance of Peace & Love Interrupted by a Vermont Ice Cream Truck,” plays off of Ben & Jerry’s “Peace, Love & Ice Cream” motto. The truck is played by a pink elephant sporting a serene visage; the skit ends when a “dance critic” proclaims that “Ben & Jerry’s Sells Peace & Love Ice Cream in Illegal Israeli Settlements.” Schumann, born and raised in Nazi Germany, has long viewed Israel as a radically evil state (Note: I used to perform with B&P semi-regularly, but ended my relationship with the company in 2007 when Schumann exhibited a large scale installation that compared the West Bank security fence, which Israel had erected to deter suicide bombers, to the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto in which the Germans deliberately starved over 100,000 Jews to death.) One only has to look at the 2011 assassination of actor/director Juliano Mer-Khamis (at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin), as well as the repression of dissent by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, to conclude that the real threat to Palestinian artists and peace activists doesn’t come from Israeli settlers or Vermont’s Best.

But why deal with the complexity of asserting meaningful solidarity with Palestinian artists when projecting fantasies about monsters are so much simpler?

There are, however, moments of raucous anarchy in Whatforward Circus that are exhilarating enough to banish second thoughts. The Vermonters offer a tiger-taming act that goes marvelously awry. Best of all, despite the arrival of Zeus, the King of Gods, the bit doesn’t settle for a heavy-handed political message. Also, the band provides plenty of joyful noise: there’s an inebriated-sounding arrangement of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries,” a relaxed version of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” and some delightfully idiosyncratic takes on Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Prince’s “1999,” and de Lisle’s “La Marseillaise.” So a good time is to had at Whatforward Circus but, like most political propaganda, true believers will be entertained the most.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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