Fictional human cruelty is a lucrative subject for the theatre. There is something righteous in our need to witness representations of horrific acts by some theatrical barbarian, and then see that barbarian brought to justice in the final act. In Bread and Puppet Theatre’s arcane new production, The Divine Reality Comedy, the infamous political action group attempts to dramatize the plight of prisoners indefinitely detained in Guantanamo Bay. The point is that there can be no catharsis as the end of this piece—the only barbarians that can be brought to justice, according to Bread and Puppet, are us. With a structure on loan from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bread and Puppet’s Divine Reality Comedy breaks down into the three sectors of the afterlife: Paradise, Purgatory and the Inferno. No fewer than thirty-four cast members use cardboard cutouts, instructional drop cloths and remarkably engineered puppets to teach audiences the inner workings of each realm. Except this isn’t Dante’s afterlife; Bread and Puppet intend for these short skits to present a compelling metaphor for the contemporary United States.
Heaven is a land of gross (but nonetheless policed) excesses whose citizens wallow in their status at the top of the divine ladder. The ringleader of the “Paradise” is a vaudevillian scarecrow Santa Claus, who takes sardonic glee in the oppression of his subjects. “Post-Paradise,” which apparently didn’t make the cut in Dante’s version, is a dainty cardboard horse dance. In “Purgatory,” all metaphors are abandoned in favor of hard facts about detainees in Guantanamo. Finally, in “Inferno,” we witness disquieting stage tableaus representing the cruel photos taken of detainees.
While Bread and Puppet’s new piece is visually arresting, even heart wrenching at times, it is also frustratingly opaque. While I don’t mean to diminish the efforts of Peter Schumann’s team in tackling these issues, it cannot be ignored that the execution is usually too casual and just plain confusing. For instance, the material is handled with very high levels of whimsy, like the Santa-crow and the horse dance. This is fine, but when wanton silliness commandeers the stage for too long – as in the horse dance – audience members might just give up on the piece. It is likely that the horse dance was an intensely profound metaphor that merely went over my head. Even so, it was far too silly for far too long.
Speaking of metaphors and silliness, both of these elements seem to gallop off with the horses once we get to “Purgatory.” After some highly effective non-literal recreations of society in the “Paradise” segment, the company jarringly presents clinical particulars about the indefinitely detained. This shift in mode quickly sobers the audience, but it also disrupts the overall unity of the piece. Had I seen the “Paradise” and “Post-Paradise” segments in another sitting, I would have never believed that they were part of the same play as “Purgatory” and “Inferno.” While each segment of the Divine Reality Comedy keeps true to its own tone, none of them sync with any of the others.
In spite of this unevenness, one can easily appreciate the jovial air with which the massive cast of volunteers commits to the material and the Christmas Pageant Aesthetic of its choreography, puppets and set pieces. The staging by no means attempts to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Heaven, Purgatory and Hell are denoted by cardboard signs scrawled out in Sharpie marker. When a cast member dons one of the vividly imagined and executed puppet costumes, like the “Paper God,” the change is performed on stage without mysticism. The stoic witnesses to Guantanamo are not sent careening by their response to the horrific acts being committed in front of them, but rather by a push broom.
One scene in the “Paradise” segment offers a glimpse of Bread and Puppet at their best. As the cast members walk from one side of the stage to the other, they find themselves occasionally pursued by two giant black boots (made of cardboard, of course). The cast members swerve to avoid the boots, or else change their direction altogether, ever mindful of the presence of authority but determined not to let it interfere with their lives. Finally, the boots have backed the entire cast into a corner of the stage and will soon be treading on the lot of them. Then, one cast member clearly yells out “Hey!” A few more sporadic shouts follow. One by one, the tyrannized citizens of Paradise shout “Hey,” until they are shouting together as one voice. The power of this determined chorus backs away the boot heals of oppression, and the cast is free to walk in peace again.
This simple but dynamic scene galvanizes the purpose of Bread and Puppet, not only in regards to the Divine Reality Comedy, but also regarding the company’s entire manifesto going back to the Vietnam era: the ghastly truths of the world are sometimes best understood in their plainest terms. While I wasn’t enraptured by this particular piece, I recognize and applaud the work for its willingness to stand up and shout “Hey!” at the revolting events taking place at Guantanamo Bay.