When people think of Bread and Puppet Theater, they naturally tend to think of the giant puppets and the garlic-slathered sourdough bread that the company serves after performances. But it can be helpful to think of Bread and Puppet as an experimental dance and music troupe.
This is especially so for their “Honey Let’s Go Home! Opera,” which they performed at Theater for the New City in New York from Dec. 5 to 8, 2019. (The company performs its Circus at the New York theater from Dec. 12 to 15.) At the heart of the show is operatic singing and curious dancing to classical music of Europe—Schubert, Brahms, Bach, Mozart.
The show begins with a squeak from a horn that announces a giant puppet. The cast pulleys it up to the rafters of a black curtained stage framed by hanging chains of papier-mache reliefs (birds, trees, squabbling people). The puppet has a body made from blue tarp that connects cardboard hands and a cardboard face resembling some sort of bearded, three-eyed prophet. Around its face are the words: “The Throne of the Anonymous.”
A band, dressed in primary colors (red, blue, yellow), arrives from behind the audience singing a Brahms requiem and walks into the outstretched arms of the puppet. Then the arms open wide and Bread and Puppet founder and director Peter Schumann—gray bearded, a bit stooped, dressed in charcoal sweater and green courdory trousers—stands to conduct. As a pianist plays a luscious, straight rendition of Schubert’s “Wander Fantasy in C Major Adagio,” Schumann directs a man to sweep the floor, violinists to pluck at their strings, a rumbling drum, shouting horns. They are all swept off the stage by performers swinging loud clacking ratchets.
The “Honey Let’s Go Home! Opera” is not a narrative, but a string of dances or actions, punctuated by spoken declarations. The events sometimes echo or build on each other, and sometimes stand alone. In reaction to the depredations of capitalism the show imagines a world of “true cardboard spirit—which is garbage.” The show says “the never mind time is over” as the “unthinkable” becomes normalized.
The “Honey Let’s Go Home! Opera” was created in September 2017 with music at its center—a collaboration between tenor Gregory Corbino, soprano Susie Perkins, pianist Idith Korman (also director of New York’s Ensemble Pi), sound-contraption maker Peter Hamburger, the Bread and Puppet company, and a chorus of volunteer performers, under the direction of Peter Schumann. Schumann loves to tinker with his productions. For example, the version they performed in New York last week differed in parts from a version performed at the company’s home in Glover, Vermont, in July. Below I describe impressions of some of the scenes.
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A woman in blue attaches the names “Chile,” “Haiti” “Peru,” “Lebanon,” “Brazil,” “Honduras” and “Boliva” to large cardboard arms. “And naked life runs in the street … yelling,” the woman in blue announces. The performers rush toward the audience and pantomime yelling.
Marching bands snake around the stage.
A woman declares: “The everyday excesses of the top cardboard executives, based on their souls’ detachment from ordinary life, which enables them to deliver the customary cruelties. Next to align the ordinary with the extraordinary and their studied use of words and gestures that communicate pleasantly without meaning anything in particular other than the recital of dead old morals and principles. In other words the reign of the true cardboard spirit—which is garbage.”
A performer with a large flat hammer puppet knocks down a parade of silent marching band performers with a shake of tambourine and a stomped foot—eventually even the pianist. A singer and announcer alternate back and forth. The announcer states: “The enormous pressure of the latest electorate who nevertheless submit to the indiscriminate growth factor of their beloved economy.” “Require a radical new response the fatness of civilized life must be tackled.” “Two-dimensionality must replace the sculpted fullness of reality. The preferred material for this transformation is cardboard.” The band members rise off the ground singing “carboard,” until the hammer pounds them all down again.
“Only flatness can save you,” the singer sings. “…from the horrors of refugeedom,” the announcer adds. “Only flatness can save you,” the band members chant as they rise from the floor.
A man in a donkey mask (Hamburger) repeatedly, violently hurls pebbles at a crowd of brown papier-mache puppets of people.
A performer announces: “You owners and handlers of cardboard must realize the unrealized.” “By declaring the world to be cardboard you open the world to unheard prosperity,” a woman announces. “The nature of cardboard is refuse—meaning the discard of the economic empires excesses. … As designed by your very own wishes, to paradise.” All sing “To paradise” repeatedly as the donkey leads the choir off with a rope, until they all fall down.
The crowd of brown papier-mache people puppets return to the stage. To Schumann’s whistling through a horn, they stand straight or lean to the side. Two performers arrive carrying a curtain painted with a rusty tree. Two large papier-mache faces draped with red hair emerges from the curtain. Perkins appears between them and sings Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa (Lament of the Nymph)”: “Amor … Non me tormenti. (Love … Don’t torment me.)”
The crowd of brown people puppets return and lay down across the stage—bobbing up and down slowly as if breathing. As the piano and violin become more urgent, the donkey wanders through the group, drumming lifts the brown people puppets back up like a magic awakening. But then the donkey turns and bangs menacingly. The performers drop their puppets, through up their hands and yell. They pick the puppets up again and repeat the actions as the donkey pursues them with drumming.
Then the crowd of puppets parts as thundering drums and cymbals announce the arrival of three performers masked and costumed in cardboard characters—one crowned, one with a bald red head, one two-faced. They stomp-dance to the percussion. Then a masked performer in a cardboard butterfly-ish cape and a woman in a lilac purple eggplant-ish costume (Perkins) sing Mozart’s “La ci darem La Mano (There we will entwine our hands)” duet from “Don Giovanni,” in which Don Giovanni tries to seduce a woman into marrying him, but she fears he may be tricking her. Their singing is punctuated by drumming and clashes. The costumed performers line up as the Butcher—wearing a white mask and black fedora, gray coat and black pants—struts on stage tossing flowers. They strip off their cardboard costume as the Butcher holds up a sign reading, “End of Act 1.”
A giant blue face and blue horse are joined by horn players dressed in blue. They face off with a giant red and white puppet person accompanied by an accordion player, a violinist, and a flag-waver dressed in red. Then bells and cymbals announce the arrival of a sun puppet, with four singers emerging from under its yellow skirts. After their song, the donkey ushers them off with bells.
Drums accompany flat people puppets as they march on. The performers then sing, “For every evil under the sun, there is a remedy or there is none.” Then they all announce: “If there be one go and find it. If there be none, never mind it.”
Schumann sits down on stage before the group, with a music stand, and plays a fiddle sermon on a custom string instrument: “But now the never mind time is over. And the kids are the ones who know it and the grownups have to go to the kids’ school and study the end of the never mind it. Yi! Yi!” Throat singing. “The facts are out, but the truth industry sells news of entertainment and continues its job of radically avoiding the issue for the benefit of the established normality which normalizes the unthinkable. The facts are out, but our civilization centers its gentle and brutal normalization routines as if everything could continue to be the same. As if we should be running in the streets that the unthinkable is at hand. … Brothers and sisters who all need each other and all feed from the same source, the facts are out and the unthinkable is at hand and naked life runs in the streets screaming like this.” The performers drop the flat cardboard puppets, raise their fists and pantomime yells—as piano and violin play. They all exit.
People arrive dressed in rustling blue paper turbans and ponchos and stiff blue cardboard pants. They line up, tuck their ponchos into their cardboard pants. They dance around singing, “Like any citizen with apprehensions,” then form a group at the back of the stage, holding a red umbrella above them. Hamburger comes in uses a pole to set in motion clockwork pendulums hanging from the ceiling. They lower white ribbons—like rain—with metal washers at the end. The blue performers back off from a man and woman in the center, Corbino and Perkins, and circle them. The man and woman sing, “Honey, let’s go home. I’m tired and I’m wet. Let’s go. Let’s go. It’s time to go home. Honey, let’s go home.”
All exit except for the Corbino and Perkins who hide their faces under the red umbrella. All goes silent except for the clacking of the ribbon machines. One by one the ribbons and washers fall to the floor with a clang. Until only one is left clacking and it falls to the floor and the theater blacks out.