Bread and Puppet Theater -- crusty and sincere -- tackles big themes

Bread and Puppet Theater, Three new plays. Theater for the New City. Directed by Peter Schumann. As we enter the Theater for the New City, we hear the merry caterwauling of the On the Lam Street Band, and there's no doubt about it: the Bread and Puppet Theater is back in town.

For this trip they have three plays in tow, expressing their usual mixture of comedy, tragedy, spectacle, and spaced-out idealism. Plus the bread they hand out at the end of each show -- sourm sourdough that obviously means business, as they do, even in performances that seem a mite whimsical.

The most substantial of their current pieces (running through March 29) is an adaptation of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, about a common man exploited by his society, to the point where he goes mad. Though there is a Buchner revival going on lately, this particular "Woyzeck" must be called a footnote to it, since the Bread and Puppet troupe use the drama only as a starting point for their own parable about social control, cultural insanity, and sadly besieged personal freedom.

The usual B&P trademarks are all here: large masks, mobile sculptures, huge puppets, and busy puppeteers jostling around the stage.There's also a note of despair -- not just melancholy, but real desperation -- that's unexpectedly vivid, coming from this gentle company. The misery of "Woyzeck" has clearly touched them deeply, and they don't allow their antic style to obscure it, or the implicit cries for change, that lie at the heart of the work. No vague criticisms of "society" here. This is a heartfelt lament for a tragic loss of human dignity.

The other show in the current B&P repertoire consists of two short works, closer to their usual vein. Venus Rising from the Water, first performed at a factory in France, is a spectacle without much story, described as a "rites-of-spring slow-motion event" complete with a two-story-high Venus and wonderful droning music supplied by the performers en masse. The second, Goya, is an antiwar parable suggested by the moods, and some of the actual images, of Goya's etchings depicting "The Horrors of War." It was first performed last November at the Bread and Puppet Farm in Vermont.

Except for parts of "Woyzeck," all these shows are slow and nonlinear, lapsing occasionally from the childlike to the merely childish. Punctuated with bursts of music and wild humor, they are essentially serious works, reflecting the company's pacifist views and the theories of director Peter Schumann that gesture can be as expressive as language. Though I respect Schumann's ideas a great deal. I have never seen a Bread and Puppet show that made them look as good as they sound.I came away from these three plays with my usual feeling that their work is like the bread they bake -- it's crusty and sincere, and you know it's good for you, but you're glad it isn't in your daily diet.

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