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Political Puppetry

Byron Woods 

Political Puppetry

Was it the papier-mache that was too much? Perhaps the paint and chicken wire, or the fabric, cardboard, and the wheat paste? Or was it instead the ideas behind these rudimentary art class supplies that made them intolerable to police in Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington? How else did giant puppets and puppeteers alike get arrested in (and sometimes before) protest street performances at the 2000 Republican National Convention, and the recent meetings of the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund?

They're questions well worth pondering, given that

Bread and Puppet Theater makes its way to Chapel Hill this week. By the time you read these words, one of the founding political protest theater groups of the 1960s--and one of a far smaller number still in existence today--will have performed their King's Story and Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for a Rotten Idea on the lawn in front of Carrboro's Weaver Street Market.

On Oct. 1-2 at 6 p.m., the group that inspired a generation of politically-oriented puppet groups--including our own Paperhand Puppet Intervention--will present their Victory Over Everything Circus in the Forest Theater adjacent to UNC.

As it happens, Maria Schumann, the daughter of Bread and Puppet's founder Peter Schumann, currently lives in the region and is completing her masters' degree in folklore at UNC. Though the Circus is clearly a response to the war in Iraq and its still-unfolding aftermath, Schumann notes, "the puppet circus is more fun than a lot of the other Bread and Puppet shows. It's political, but not in such a heavy way."

"It's clearly a family show," she says. "Kids tend to love the circuses, because they're visually very quick, and imaginative: with grasshoppers on bicycles, and all sorts of animals."

Colorfully costumed flora and fauna become metaphors in the Bread and Puppet world. The Tigers of Consumption will perform acrobatics, while the Zebras of Consumer Confidence "are trained to respond when their handlers call out the results of the stock market," Schumann notes.

Things descend into chaos as the Victory Over Everything band proclaims total victory. Thank heaven the equally metaphorical washerwomen and the garbagemen are there to clean things up and take out the trash when it does.

Schumann reflects on a childhood in radical theater in a small town in Vermont, before attempting to describe what keeps the theater going. "Peter is driven by the idea that he has to use his art to fight against the injustices in the world," she says, "and that our government in the U.S. in particular is responsible for many of them: the war in Iraq, environmental degradation."

"There's also the philosophy of making something out of nothing--using the garbage of our system to make puppets to fight against the system. We use cardboard and scraps of cloth not to strive for shiny, new, slick things, but to use what's available, the material around us--and to say that anybody can do it."

If the group follows tradition, they will also distribute handmade sourdough bread to members of the audience, bread which the company will bake on-site. Rumor also has it that Carrboro ArtsCenter is already looking into a return booking for the group next season.

Maybe she knows that proprietor Eula Mae Johnson's a little picky about her clientele. Or maybe she's anticipating a little bit of trouble after dark. Either way, playwright Dorothy Clark doesn't want to tell me where The Bird of Paradise Dew Drop Inn, this juke joint she's got going this weekend and next, actually is.

Clark helpfully adds that it's also doing business as The House of Blues, a fact that still doesn't get me in the door--or even tell me where to find it. "Some small, backstreet urban establishment," I ask, hopefully, "or perhaps some backroad country affair, straight out of the mind of Willie Little?" Clark isn't saying.

The live blues band sounds good: welcome guest Bobby Hinton on vocals and keys, with Aaron Mills on bass, and Warren Frazier on drums.

And the regulars sound interesting. There's Bernard, who's been telling Imogene for a year that he's going to marry her one of these days. Then there's Shirley, who's actually got Bernard's two kids--but not the double-ring ceremony to go with 'em. Ralph's a good guy who just comes in to unwind a little--can't sing, though. And as usual, the Blues Lady's in the corner: Nobody knows what's the deal with her.

Finally, Clark lets it slip, just before the disconnect. "PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council. The cover's $10. And the best-dressed for a juke joint gets to sit at Eula Mae's table the next time they stop in."

Before we close, hats off to Lauren Johnson and Greg Lewis, the majordomos of UNC's 24-Hour Play Festival. Each semester the pair manages to give student playwrights one sleepless night and directors, actors and technicians the following day in which to write from scratch, cast, memorize, direct, tech and then stage a set of brand-new one-act plays--in less than 24 hours. It's all for charity, and this time the capacity crowd at Hanes Art Auditorium on Sept. 20 anted up $800 for Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

For the most part, the fledgling bards stuck to sketch comedy, but Zachary Gresham got our attention with One Has to Stop Rowing to Read, a very promising seed script which began to explore how one young woman becomes entranced by an ultrafundamentalist--and how she breaks away. The characters and insight in this work clearly have more of a future than a 10-minute Saturday night sketch.

After watching the students have fun with this, and after witnessing the recent Play Slam at the ArtsCenter, I started thinking. The regional theater scene--regional playwrights in particular--have started experimenting, taking chances, and flexing a few impressive artistic muscles of late. I wondered what would happen if the larger, public group tried their hand at this. Any takers?

Finally, the North Carolina Dance Alliance holds their first annual gathering in recent years this weekend at Meredith College. Around-the-clock classes, seminars and concerts this weekend include the first full evening from Postcards Dance Project on Friday night, and a showcase of works from around the state Saturday. For more details, call 760-8015 or check the website:

www.ncdancealliance.org . EndBlock

Other notable openings:
All The King's Men Parts 1&2, Burning Coal, Kennedy Theater, BTI Center; Jackie O, Long Leaf Opera/NCCU Theater, Carolina Theatre; Sera Jay Tibetan Monastery Monks, ArtsCenter; NC Dance Alliance Annual Concert, Jones Auditorium, Meredith College; Sea Marks, Wordshed/Ghost&Spice, Swain Hall, UNC; Cabaret, University Theater (NC State), Stewart Theater; Blithe Spirit, Temple Theater, Sanford; The Lost Colony -- Student Edition, Regency Park; Anamalia Golden Rod Puppets, Sertoma Amphitheater, Cary

Reviews:

***1/2 The Faraway Nearby, Theatre in the Park--John Murrell's vivid poetry matches the strong images of Georgia O'Keeffe at times, as he documents the artist's physical decline and grudging, growing dependency on handyman Juan Hamilton in this heartbreaking play. D. Anthony Pender gives a fine grassroots-level performance as Hamilton, but the musical overarticulation in Erica Nashan's voice belongs strictly to a young, professional actor, not the aging genius we see, briefly, at the edge of darkness.

***1/2 Peep: Take It All Off, Dog & Pony Show--Maybe they should keep their vendetta against critical naysayers (your humble servant included): Things are looking up for this nuevo burlesque revue. Though still uneven in spots, this edition was considerably better acted, directed and scripted--just sharper and more creative overall--than the mediocrity we saw last October. The comic, slow-burn interplay between wisecracking burlesque battle-axes Miss Pixie and Mitzi LaRouge had two now robust characters with a shared past going at each other with relish, and this time the script of director Lissa Brennan (who also plays Miss Pixie) kept the audience laughing. Granted, this Peep stays on soapbox a bit too long, and the memorable physical comedy in Leigh Hall's domestic goddess character's strip tease contrasted with an earlier performer who never seemed comfortable making eye contact with the audience. But Flynt Burton and Sarah Erickson made amusing contributions, while Brennan's vividly, um, illustrated history of burlesque was educational, if a bit longwinded. Still, the fundamental question was never "Should burlesque be done?" It was, "Should it be done well?" Either way, this comes closer than earlier efforts. Sign us up for the next one.

* 1/2 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, NRACT--The cute-as-a-button Oompa Loompas looked as if they stepped straight out of the Sci-Fi Channel--props to the makeup and costumers. But this was a big show--and possibly one too big for the small North Raleigh community theater. The unwieldy stage pieces required repeated set changes that lasted longer than some scenes. Plus such extensive sets and costumes could easily have cheated the director of adequate time with actors to fully develop the characters during the production process. Still, we saw significant glimmers of hope from Brian Lord as Willy Wonka, Tom McKelvy as Grandpa Joe, and of course Matthew Gudlaugsson as Charlie.

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