The evocative and provocative artistry of The Bread and Puppet Theater is more than radical political statement or partisan dogma. Rather Bread and Puppet is and always has been a collaborative commentary involving local volunteers, a core theater company along with the active participation of the audience. The viewers’ gaze animates every performance and infuses it with meaning.
A highly imaginative and preternaturally creative spirit is present in the troupe’s every breath and every movement. From the second the large, old space at the West Park Presbyterian Church goes dark and Bread and Puppet’s chilling performance begins, the audience is transported, all to their own cold, dark places. Whatever agonies each person has experienced–or fears–is projected onto the performance piece as well as reflected back onto each individual.
The Shatterer of Worlds is being performed in Manhattan Wednesdays-Sundays through November 24th. Other events throughout New York City are also scheduled to celebrate the puppet company’s 50th Anniversary of presenting “cheap art and political theater.”
While music machines that look like handmade glockenspiels with countless intricate moving parts keep ticking away time in the manner of a metronome, zombie-like individuals in an apocalyptic world die and die again, then rise, only to die more deaths. They inhabit a netherworld of faeries-to-be-feared and other fantastical creatures along with functionaries who would deny them their citizenship in the state of humanity.
Peter Schumann, the founder of Bread and Puppet, plays the fiddle, howls and yodels, and toots a child’s tiny plastic horn while narrating, in a rather heavy German accent: “Life, the splendor of 100 suns blazing all at once, resembling the exulted soul, is becoming death, the shatterer of worlds.”
The idea of this particular performance, The Shatterer of Worlds, with naturalization services for applicants requesting citizenship in the shattered world, harks back to the beginning of the end. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb” was said to have remarked after the detonation of the bomb in New Mexico, “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” words he was reminded of from the Bhagavad Gita.
With sundry homemade contraptions in the tradition of Dr. Seuss’ devilish doodads and whimsical whatchamacallits, all crafted for this performance by Peter Hamburger, the unsettling story of our shattered world plays out in ways both terrifying and mundane.
The clock continues to tick and tock as some sort of reminder throughout the evening. Time is passing as people line up for their naturalization interviews. A government functionary, with the ding of her very official bell, frames part of the action. After all, it’s ultimately her decision whether people live, die, or are deported to some otherworld. Or is it?
The Shatterer of Worlds is a slow-moving, dissonantly choreographed piece. But, the hour and a half performance went by in a flash. Feelings of terror and anger as well as awe and surprise were floating in my head as trumpets and French horns disruptively heralded the end… of the performance, and perhaps even the world.
As Schumann generously sliced an enormous loaf of bread and a theater member spread a tasty potion of garlic, oil, salt and parsley on the wedges, folks from the (not nearly full enough) audience, mostly older hippie types, lined up for political conversation and artistic “communion.”
Bread and Puppet also sells cheap art on a sliding scale after every performance to support their work. There are lino block prints on cloth and paper, manifestos of all kinds, cards and booklets, tracts and posters, and other printed matter of every sort.
BREAD AND PUPPET SPECIAL 50TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS:
PERFORMANCE: The Shatterer of Worlds, November 7th–24th, 2013. All shows at 8p.m. Presented in conjunction with The Center at West Park, West Park Presbyterian Church, 165 West 86th St., NY, NY 10024. For more info call: 212-362-4890 or visit www.westparkpresbyterian.org.
EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS AND SCULPTURE: Peter Schumann: The Shatterer, Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY 11368. November 9th, 2013 – March 2014. Queens Museum hours: Wednesday-Sunday from 12:00-6:00 pm. Opening Reception Monday, November 11th from 6-8p.m., with fiddle lecture performed by Peter Schumann. For more info call: 718-592-9700.
EXHIBTION OF ARTISTS BOOKS AND PAMPHLETS: Nothing is Not Ready: Artists’ Books and Pamphlets by Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Press 1963 – 2013, Printed Matter, 195 10th Ave., NY, NY 10011, November 2nd – 30th, 2013. Mondays thru Weds and Saturdays from 11am-7pm. Thursdays and Fridays from11am-8pm. For more info call: 212-925-0325 or visit: www.printedmatter.org
FILM SCREENING: Bread & Puppet Theater at 50 Film Program, Tuesday, November 19th, 2013, 7:30 p.m. at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave., NY, NY 10003, Admission: $10. For more info call: 212-505-5181 or visit www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.
Stephanie Schroeder is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been anthologized in various collections of political essays, erotic fiction, and personal essays. She is keen cultural observer and her appetite for odd juxtapositions and interesting contradictions informs all of her work. Schroeder is the author of Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide, a memoir.