Let There Be Puppets – and a Green New Deal

by Julia Levine

Persistent Acts kicks off a second year at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics, with a look at Bread & Puppet Theatre’s recent tour to New York.

As 2018 came to a close, I had the privileged of seeing a Bread & Puppet show at New York City’s downtown Theater for the New City. On tour from rural Vermont, in the off-season of the farm, they presented their new opera Or Else, written by Bertolt Brecht, composed by Hans Eisler, and directed by Peter Schumann. What I knew of B&P was large puppets, bread, and that my friend Paul was in this show. I’ve encountered B&P’s puppets before, like at the Women’s March in 2017.

As we assembled into the sold-out house, I took in the shower curtain with “Or Else” written on it; the tight rows of papier-mâché puppets hanging from the grid; the traveling-salesman-type trunk with a suit hanging off the edge; large-scale beast-like puppets; rows of cardboard buildings and Schumann, the founder of B&P himself. He blew the whistle and the show began, with a man appearing behind the trunk, dropping an ice cube on a row of spoons, which fell onto a drum. This ice played out differently than it may have when the show was created, during the summer in a barn, but the implication was similar – ice melts, turning to water, which drips. Elsewhere on the stage, the buildings and beasts are pulled to the wings. What unfolded during the show was a series of movement-based, object-based, and musical moments. The music was performed by Pi Ensemble, and included brass, piano, and violin, and two singers who wove in and out of the stage action. A description of the stage action and its potential meanings can be found in Wonderland, from when the piece was performed over the summer at the farm.

As the ensemble cast of word-less actors maneuvered the puppets and objects around the stage in choreographed synchronicity and through the music, I made a similar meaning to Wonderland writer Greg Cook: Or Else “is a show about dark times in the land, channeling a national sense of things gone dangerously wrong, of wicked people in charge who dictate cruel punishments and arrests and violence. It’s a show full of forebodings of the forces of fascism and torture coming awake.”

How is this show different than what’s on the news? What is elucidating about this performance? The cast manipulate puppets, gather as a crowd, and dance in pairs – depicting life of what seemed to me a version of Marx’s proletariat. The show is abundant with metaphor, starting with the puppets themselves: A number of human-shaped puppets, of varying sizes, make appearances as anonymous individuals. We see the actual humans who manipulate the puppets; they are also anonymous. These people – as humans and puppets – act out scenes of labor, through varying levels of industrial support. And in one scene, after dirt has been poured on the rows of stationary puppets, humans clean up the mess.

What is resonant to me about Or Else is both in the making-of and in the witnessing. From what I saw onstage, a group of people came together to make something out of nothing – the human touch is viscerally clear when looking at the puppets. By centering the puppets, I felt even more of a connection to my fellow humans because, though I could see the actors manipulating these puppets, I could ascribe my own meaning to their actions. I felt a connection to my species that is less tangible in this hyper-digital time. When the puppets moved together, it was like magic. I made my own meaning of the scenes as a whole, based on my experiences and inclinations. I have the luxury of time and space to really chew on a piece like this, but as the play seemed to echo: freedom and individuality are not to be taken for granted. At the same time, this piece highlighted the potential of a group of humans. By the end of the show, the ensemble had raised a giant human-shaped puppet up to the tall grid of the theatre, which I took to represent the rise of a fascist dictator. Finally, the scene returns to how it was at the beginning, with the large puppet looming in the background.

In B&P fashion, bread and aioli were brought out after the curtain call (rye bread and garlic grown on the farm), for a full sensory experience. I left with many potential meanings to a given scene, and continued questions about the state of our country. What happens in an absolute dictatorship? What are the alternatives? With the stage returning to its original state, it feels like the events of the play are on loop, a cycle that perpetuates – “or else” a different direction is imagined and pursued.

We are already seeing the hard-hitting effects of our current economic and political systems on our climate: the IPCC’s report lays out what the negative “or else” consequences could be in twelve years. Fueled by this, some Democrats in the current U.S. Congress are envisioning “what else”: a Green New Deal, rooted in decarbonizing the economy and justice for those communities hardest-hit by climate disasters. As my friend Blake iterated in our year-end post What Gives You Hope?, there is momentum around this platform, especially amongst youth who won’t take the cycle of “or else” anymore. Until there are concrete policies enacted, I feel cautiously optimistic about this GND, and propelled to stage more “elses” in this year to come.

(All photos: Bread and Puppet Theater performs Or Else in the troupe’s Paper Mâché Cathedral in Glover, Vermont, Aug. 17, 2018. Photos by Greg Cook.)

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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