When he proposed the Verfremdungseffekt, Bert Brecht probably never expected it could be realized by four puppeteer-actor-singer-musicians doing a version of his most popular work with cardboard cutouts. As presented by the Bread & Puppet Theatre at a benefit for the Zeitgeist Gallery, an alternative community art center in Cambridge MA, Peter Schumann's condensation works remarkably well. Done before a cardboard proscenium illustrated by the Garden of Eden on top and the Descent on either side, using flat larger-than-life puppets painted in the company's best cheap art style, this one hour version omitted only the Schluss Chorale from the usual score. The show was played in the company's well-developed sideshow style, using street theatre techniques, very few props, and an orchestra consisting of an accordion, two drums from a decrepit trap set, and assorted cymbals augmented by a trash can lid or two. A good time was had by all, including two sold out houses of the faithful. The show was billed as "not suitable for children or innocent bystanders."
The cast of characters, rendered in garish caricatures reminiscent of George Grosz -- if he's been into finger painting -- was augmented by gods of modern society, such as naked Lust, two-headed Greed, and Love, the latter in skeletal white on black. These deities were joined by the Old Testament patriarch, shaking His finger at it all. When using these giant toy theatre figures, the four actors spoke either from behind them or popped out as the drama grew, sometimes interacting with the figure as a doppelganger or another persona. This seemingly crude technique rapidly developed a complex vocabulary of its own and of course could be walked on when the text required. There were also groups of figures, a squad of red demons, and a bevy of very pink nude harlots going about their business at the bordello au naturel.
The four Bread & Puppeteers were Claire Dolan, Jig Gresser, Jason Norris, and Maria Schumann. Dolan, in a sequined evening jacket, provided occasional accompaniment on a small battered accordion while energetically pedaling the bass drum. She also performed a riveting "Pirate Jenny" as Polly Peachum and began the show as the StreetSinger. Norris, in a rumpled gray suit, assisted in the opening by flipping crude drawings, then quickly became Jeramiah Peachum, joined by Schumann as his spouse. Norris was usually Mackie Messer as well; Schumann in a plain black dress also played Polly Brown quite fetchingly. Which left Tiger Brown and a host of minor characters for Gresser who was everywhere in his vest and bowler. Songs were often as not done a capella with other members of the cast lining out significant passages. The familiar tunes had an echo of the sound track of G.W.Pabst's legendary black and white film. Indeed the whole show was closer in attitude to that movie than Lenya's New York revival which brought the show back into vogue. On occasion a few members of the audience could be heard singing along.
Discussing refinements for such a production may seem superfluous, but the evening was powerful enough that future performances seem likely. The impromptu bar stage right, used by the cast in character -- and the actors when they needed to hydrate -- could be better integrated into the mis en scene. Similarly, the orchestra stage left would benefit from a bit of decor. Title cards, not necessarily those from the original text and probably not as many, would make transitions less perfunctory. Figures that could face both directions or go from head on to profile would add to the variety of the stage picture and require very little technical sophistication. The current ones is starting to become too floppy at any rate. Cardboard doesn't survive vigorous simulated sex very well. Variation in the scale of the puppets might also enrich some scenes where crowds are implied. It would also be nice to hear some of the original lyrics in German. And the Schluss Chorale needs to be done at the end, probably with the help of the audience. The lyrics could be printed in the program, then lined out from a flip chart, to fortify the ending.
Peter Schumann and the Bread & Puppet Theatre -- founded in 1963 -- usually work from original scripts and direct political statements. Perhaps they'll now add adaptations from world theatre to their repertory following Brecht's lead. This play's theme, summed up in the line, "How can the crime of robbing a bank compare to the founding of a bank?", certainly resonates with current financial news. What could these experts at agit-prop do with Shakespeare or the Greeks? Or Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, and the whole Germanic canon, including those seldom done abroad? Incidentally, Shumann is one of the directors recently celebrated as a decorator at an downtown exhibit in NYC.
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