In the Grip of the Possible

At the center of Bread and Puppet Theater’s performance on Cambridge Common on Sunday, September 2, and reaching into all the troupe’s high-spirited paraphernalia (magically painted school bus, raucous parade), are the Possibilitarians (ie. all of us) who make up the performance’s “Complete Everything Everywhere Dance Circus.” The famed political puppet collective, started in 1963 by Peter Schumann and influential in protests ranging from Vietnam to Occupy Wall Street, offers an experience of theater as life not simply lived through on stage but thought through, protested against, and even subversively played out.

On perhaps the last theatrically perfect summer afternoon, the troupe facilitated their practice of magical collectivity through a succession of vivid political tableaux. Enormous haunting puppets and masked dancers hovered above and around the nearly four hundred people in attendance, giving form, complexity, and often darkly hilarious interpretations to the political impasses and differences Americans are currently facing, especially now in this crucial upcoming election season.

Each tableau distilled into a compelling image of current debate—recent graduates were beset by the red demons of debt, while a worm labeled “Job” was dangled above them in the air then snatched away. Spy drones whined over a field of sheep in a bucolic farm scene. The Ovulators, dressed in colorful “female” apparel, waged war against the legislative body of Arizona by growling and tearing at the masked white faces of the legislators. Elsewhere, Democrats and Republicans walked off stage arm in arm while the anti-capitalist Third Party lay writhing in silence on the ground of the Common.

The playfully serious puppeteers embrace the fine line between the simplistic and the indelible: they offer a procession of provocative imagery rather than in-depth critique, and their agit-prop techniques escape simplistic political didacticism largely through the magical quality of their imagery. At times they evoke our complicity as voters through the skewed tone of the uncomfortably hilarious (Cows singing “War, what is it good for? Nothing! Raw milk, what is it good for? Absolutely everything!). Other times they draw on their huge, looming puppets as an atmospheric canopy of ghosts, which represent voices unheard in our contemporary debates. The most haunting scene featured fifteen foot tall faces draped with blowing scarves suggestive of the women who have disappeared along the US/ Mexican border since 1994, accompanied by skeleton dancers and pig-faced drummers. Such memorable imagery sticks in the mind and might serve later to provoke a child’s questions or an extended Google search to learn more about the issue portrayed.

Theater as a spur for political action, in the Brechtian sense, is at the heart of this enterprise. The puppeteers envision their work as a form of subversive utopianism, masquerading as low-brow art, and after every performance they invite the audience to interact with the performers while they pass out their free homemade rye bread smeared with garlic butter. “I see the cruelty of this society as coming directly from the wonderful philosophy of capitalism,” founder Peter Schumann explains. “I’m saying the School of the Americas and Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are not ‘rotten apples,’ as Bush called them, but are philosophically correct, pin-pointable climaxes of the system, the cruelty of the capitalist system.” The Possibilitarians suggest that alternative orders are not only possible but have been thriving quietly alongside us since the sixties, and that their harvest is here and now.

-K. Heller

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