Because not everything I'm about to write about Bread and Puppet Theater and its new show, The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists, is positive, I want to be sure to say upfront that I think you should go see this company during its brief annual visit to Theater for the New City. In fact, I'm recommending that you see it next year and the year after that, and every year that Peter Schumann's health, Bread and Puppet's solvency, and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of local volunteers allow the company to bring its unique brand of theater to New York. Even after more than 40 years, there is simply no other theater group quite like this. In keeping with its street theater and outdoor circus roots, Bread and Puppet welcomed audience members outside Theater for the New City's First Avenue entrance with a brass band led by what appeared to be a Salvation Army Santa Claus. When the band marched inside, the show was about to begin—a more exuberant approach than just blinking the lights in the lobby.
Once the audience members had taken their seats, a master of ceremonies welcomed us and introduced the premise of the show with the aid of illustrated placards. Recent history has been dominated by a war between the Terrorists and the Horrorists. These two groups look different but are suspiciously similar beneath their costumes. They both believe in good and bad, concepts that are "dialectically meaningless." There is a God of Everything and a God of Nothing, both played by the same actor/dancer (Schumann, the company's director). Their witnesses, their victims, and their enablers are the cardboard citizenry, represented by a dozen or so volunteers in white costumes. They hold up cardboard cutouts, implying that "the people" have been rendered two-dimensional by the reductive rhetoric of good and evil. Other allegorical figures are represented by Schumann's trademark giant puppets.
Much of what ensued was clever. Some of it was breathtakingly beautiful. The overall concept, though, was disappointingly schematic and not illuminating. Three white puppets, apparently functioning as Fate-like sisters, turned the wheel of history. A plane was used as a weapon. A war ensued. The cardboard citizenry read about these events in the news and occasionally stomped its feet or danced in circles at the prompting of Schumann's God of Nothing.
Schumann's great talent is that the rough-hewn aesthetic of his puppet designs doesn't keep the puppets from dancing with extraordinary grace, and he himself remains a nimble and compelling performer. His ability to orchestrate these events in a short period of time, using local talent, is also admirable.
Still, for a show that began by attacking the simplistic ideology of both terrorism and the war on terror, the politics of The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists presents a gratingly simple political vision in its own right. It's also worth noting that, while the lack of a program is meant in part to downplay the contribution of any given individual and emphasize the collective nature of Bread and Puppet's communal approach to art, society, and bread-making, no effort at all is made to de-emphasize Schumann's status as auteurist guru. Publicity materials for this production spend over a page detailing his accomplishments, his influences, and his personal history. Everyone else is just a cardboard citizen doing the work and dancing the dance assigned to them by their leader.
Bread and Puppet has been a major presence in agit-prop theater for decades, and much about its agenda and its operation is genuinely exciting. The whole-grain sourdough bread and pungent garlic-laden aioli, given out in a kind of secular communion after the performance, is delicious. Like all entrenched institutions, though, this company should be held accountable for any whiff of hypocrisy in its power dynamics or its politics, lest it become a reflection of the systems it decries.