Review: Bread & Puppet Theater "Tear Open the Door of Heaven"
With a promise of puppets, dancing, political subversion and free bread, Bread & Puppet Theater’s fourth annual installment of their Boston residency attracted a crowd Friday, the second night of the “Tear Open the Door of Heaven” performance. Audience members braved the cold to come out to The Cyclorama building, part of the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End, which proves to be a perfect venue for the visually arresting style of this Glover, VT based theater troupe. “Tear Open the Door of Heaven” packs a punch into an hour-and-a-half long piece, charged with director Peter Schumann’s stark anti-war message and his anti-elitist, community approach to creating art. It leaves one with an equal amount of despair and inspiration.
The troupe has gathered an impressively large number of local volunteers of all ages to form the Lubberland National Dance Company, a reflection of Bread & Puppet's popularity and support in the Boston area. At the same time, there is something slightly unnerving about the sight of people dressed all alike, performing in step. Yet this mix of professional and amateur dancers helps give the piece its unique quality – a deep engagement with the audience. Instead of sitting back and being entertained, they are forced to pay attention as their fellow community members jump, yell, clap and make music in an implicit rejection of the commercial nature of theater and dance.
The Somerville-based Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band starts off with a spirited introductory performance under the Dirt Cheap Money Circus banner. Breaking the celebration, Schumann abruptly turns the audience’s attention to the other side of the room, with the “Prolog : Situation.” A cardboard figure hanging on the wall reads “War Walks Over Their Heads – Death Tortures Them,” setting a somber tone for the rest of the evening. Schumann chooses to focus the anti-war symbolism on the aftermath of last winter’s Gaza attacks, with cardboard baby figures and others geared specifically towards this tragedy. While at times heavy-handed, it brings up an ongoing situation nearly forgotten by the media.
The six acts and accompanying dance “interventions” of “Tear Open the Door of Heaven” shine a theatrical light on pressing current issues. Besides the Gazan plight, they target environmental destruction and the negative impact of religious indoctrination. This latter theme is far less clear-cut, weaving itself sporadically throughout the piece as the performers are called “The Practitioners of the Brand New Paper Mache Religion,” Schumann’s version of a disposable religion. The centerpiece of the stage consists of a puppet stage, which hosts troupe members disguised by large masks expanding on the idea of reaching “behind closed doors” to get to the truth hidden by the spin of religion and politics.
The first part of the piece delivers a string of laughs, from the odd “forest admiration dance” to the destruction of mountaintop removal machines. However, the performance takes a particularly dark turn during the middle third and fourth acts, when three troupe members – wearing large masks and headscarves to represent Palestinian mothers – unfurl a white banner with the names of children who died in Gaza haphazardly painted in black. This jolting visual portrayal, followed by the simulation of the children’s deaths and the “Dance of the Foolish Woman” to bring them back to life, really drives home the continued impact of the attacks. Again, the approach is a bit of a shock tactic, yet Schumann’s eartnestness and creativity – and of the course the stunning puppets - holds it together.
The last two acts, “Stargazers & Money Artists,” and “Serious Window” inject humor back into the performance, including a wonderful satirical take on the media – in this case, NPR – trying helplessly to get to the “meaning” of this artistry. The piece culminates in a highly musical and vocal celebration of the newfound Paper Mache Religion. While not offering any solutions to the problems it presents, “Tear Open The Door of Heaven” uses an innovative mix of darkness and humor to get its points across and its challenging complexity deserves a continued respect.
Unlike other theater performances, where most people get up and leave the minute the lights are back on, the troupe encourages audience members to stay and interact, partake in their signature sourdough bread, look at Schumann’s art installation, or purchase one of the many “cheap art” pieces on display. The entire concept of bringing the community into the art-making process is perhaps Bread & Puppet’s strongest point and the key to its ongoing success.
Additional weekend performances include “Tear Open the Door of Heaven” Saturday, January 30 and Sunday, January 31 at 7 p.m. and the family-friendly “Dirt Cheap Money Circus” at 4 p.m. on both days.