Three large brown papier-mâché puppets arrive on the blue curtained stage early on in Bread and Puppet Theater’s “Diagonal Life: Theory and Praxis.” The puppets depict head and hands, perhaps cowering or hiding under their arms.
“The horizontal produces us and eventually takes us back into its giant arms embrace,” says a woman, standing to the side. “The vertical is the exceptional human predicament … that manufactures history and warfare.” She goes on: “The diagonal results from the hurt the vertical suffers in the process.”
“Diagonal Life” features puppets and masks and a live band and choral singing and poetic dances in a small theater of blue curtains speckled with white dots and stars. It is a compendium of brief acts, one thing after another, about the rotten state of our politics, about the struggles of human migration, about global warming doom. After performing “Diagonal Life” in halls all over the East Coast this spring, the company plans to perform a version of the show on Sundays at 3 p.m. from June 9 to 30 at their theater in Glover, Vermont.
Four performers, held up by ropes around their waists, lean diagonally into the center of the stage. A person in a blue horse mask, brings tea then dances. Perfomers walk onto the stage swinging big cardboard legs back and forth.
The woman explains the horizontal and the vertical and the diagonal with the big brown faces on stage. Then a man points a long stick, left and right and toward the audience. The puppets get thrown down, then winched back upright with a ropes and pulleys.
A woman at a typewriter orders: “Take a seat now. … Destination point? …. Reason for travel? …. Why didn’t you just stay in your country?” Between questions, a performer wearing a white star appears atop the stage’s back curtain and drops little paper stars upon the one brown puppet left. Then a bucket full of dirt is dumped on the puppet.
A performer dressed as a “washerwoman”—rosy cheeks, apron, kerchief—cleans it off. She puts a child puppet in a stroller to be wheeled away by another performer. “Next,” the woman at the typewriter announces. The puppet is pushed off. The washerwoman sweeps up the dirt.
Four performers enter, pick paper stars out of the pile of dirt, place them on white pillows, and dance with them.
Performers return with the big swinging brown legs, stomping faster and faster as they swing the legs.
A white headless character stands bent over at the left and a white banner painted with blue faces, suns and the word “all” gets pulled into its neck.
“Now the world famous astrologer Nostradamus will interpret certain aspects of the sky for you,” a performer announces. Nostradamus arrives as a person wearing a fake white beard, holding a book and pointing at the white paint speckled blue curtain. “All manner of oversized gods have to be made from papier-mâché and manipulated into proper positions,” Nostradamus says. “Only sunrises can save us from ourselves because our traditional correctional facilities have failed us so badly.” Nostradamus says, “The riotous muscle power of the last phase of capitalism at its murderous best.”
A masked performer with four arms stands writhing amidst crackling cardboard flames until the person collapses.
“And now people of the audience, we’d like to present something we hope you will enjoy: Universal Anti-Depression Dance Number 1.” A person wearing a blue horse mask dances.
A group of yellow suns and lions bob to clanging chimes. They exit to the right, revealing a white cardboard figure with bloody red face. A man says, “As our suns fly above us, without speaking to us, we must learn the language of unpolitics. The unpolitics of the unsystematic against. Unpolitics are uncivilization’s body and soul ready to rejoin naked humanity with its landscape. Politics is the organized crime that inspires blustering unpolitics. The unpolitics of hands and feet as they try to live their hand and foot life.”
Swinging brown legs return. A person in bloody red face mask points at legs, pushing them off stage.
For the second “Anti-Depression Dance,” a white bear dances.
Nostradamus offers more curious statements, until performer arrives holding in her hands little pink-skinned puppet with long brown twine hair. They announce that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg is addressing the United Nations: Political leaders “have got away with doing nothing to fight the climate crisis. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.” They point to a flat cardboard painting of a man in a suit and tie, and sing: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.”
Six white deer with blue trees painted on their flanks slowly bob and dance to violins as if trotting. Then a person with a megaphone appears above them: “Attention, the Diagonal Court summons you. … You are designated to be exterminated. We will provide the appropriate services for your departure. … Attention, the Diagonal Court summons you.” The deer seem to writhe and collapse.
For the third “Anti-Depression Dance,” a green frog dances.
A carnival barker or con man-type follow arrives in a sport coat with a casino wheel painted with a spiral of stars: “As you know the common university’s task is to provide opportunities for jobs and money, whereas our university aims directly at the universe. Our university of tricks is based on the work of Professor Nostradamus.”
The barker spins the wheel and explains the “Bicycle trick” (ride away when problems hit you over the head); “pulley trick” (to keep you from the “predictable fall”), “sunrise trick” (go to bed “with total depression unable to face the diagonal reality any longer,” place cat at your toes and awake to dance the sunrise dance). A performer, wearing a white “University of Tricks” shirt and a flat cardboard mask with “student” written on the forehead, demonstrates.
“The final trick is the bread and garlic trick,” the barker says, “which allows the student of the university to confront the current political dilemma, hopefully effectively.”
Another performer announces: “Normalizing the unthinkable: When normality accepts the unthinkable as its possible future, it further legitimizes it. … The unthinkable was never unthinkable enough.”
Puppet cars travel over green hills, painted with rows of legs, and road into a heart. Four people stand amidst the scene, put on bloody red face masks and point at a cardboard fire that blazes in from right side. The masked performers drag the landscape off as cardboard fire spreads across the stage.
A voice calls out “Point of entry? Destination point? Why did you bother to leave your country? … You are under arrest.”
The masked performers stand and point as the barker returns to the stage with the blue horse carrying something on a platter: “You eat the bread and garlic and immediately get the strength to oppose these rotten politics and yell in the street.”
A chorus comes on stage and sings: “If solutions within the system are impossible to find then we should change the system itself. We’re running out of time. And what’s the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society. Our house is on fire.”
“Diagonal Life: Theory and Praxis” ends as the cast points atop the back curtain where there is a little white puppet in a boat, an angel maybe, who blows a trumpet.
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