January 31, 2022
The doors have closed on the 4th Annual Chicago International Puppet Festival, hosted around the city in various venues ranging from neighborhoods to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Now it will be an annual event and I cannot wait till next year! In the process of preparing to cover the fest, an opportunity emerged for me to completely submerge myself in one of the signature events of the 10 days: I was invited to become a local performer volunteering to help Bread and Puppet Theatre bring The Persians to life in the brand new Epiphany Center for the Arts at 201 S. Ashland. It was a dream come true.
Bread and Puppet is a political theatre institution: founders Peter and Elka Schumann started out in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1963 protesting high rents, rats and police violence—the puppets got bigger and bigger and protests were staged against the Vietnam War. Eventually the company would locate to Glover, Vermont, which has become something of a place of pilgrimage for any puppeteer. Bread and Puppet’s experimental spectacles interweaving impressionistic narratives, leftist manifestos, visual art, movement and ensemble produced music have created artistic thought leadership that has influenced American theatre and puppetry in particular: Chicago’s own homegrown puppet institutions and artists owe a deep debt to the aesthetic, practices and concerns of B and P. Shows have always included the serving of bread, a tradition that continued in Chicago, and was the one part of the experience I had to miss due to gluten sensitivity.
The Persians as envisioned by Bread and Puppet Theatre embeds Aeschylus’ earliest known human written tragedy script with a warning about ruining Planet Earth, and includes a commentary about the Supreme Court’s control over women’s bodies, complaints about the treatment of immigrants and yes, still about unaffordable housing – 58 years and we have not solved the problems that the original shows protested. The orginal ancient script focused on the horrific loss of the Persian Army at the Battle of Salamis at the hands of a vastly outnumbered Greek army. This version also centers on loss, deep mourning and warns about coming vast tragedy ahead if we do not attend to our Mother Planet. The B and P show has been mounted in their home in Vermont last summer, and in their former home, New York City, at the Theatre for the New City last December. The Chicago production was beautifully staged in the truly inspiring Epiphany Center for the Arts, a repurposed 19th century church, a soaring open venue with a ceiling reminiscent of ship’s ribs or a barn. The acres of hardwood floors became a drum for our marching beats. Director Peter Schumann, leading us from his laptop in Vermont, was enthralled by our sound. We were merely augmenting the gorgeous score of the work which ranged from the Agincourt Carol, a fifteenth century ballad recounting Henry V’s victory over Charles VI, to a song from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion to Hell Broke Loose in Georgia. Lead singers Gideon Crevoshay and Matthew Shiffrin carried us along with soaring voices that sounded like spirits in the acoustically remarkable space.
We began with few details, an intrepid band of a dozen volunteers, drawn from as far away as New York and Minnesota, including an entire family ,tromping through the freshly fallen snowstorm into the vast space to circle up and learn the 90 minute epic, lead by ensemble members Clare Dolan and Amelia Castillo teaching us our movement and cues and giving us puppet manipulation advice. Large puppets and banners require a great deal of physical effort in addition to the marching and jumping and falling that was part of the piece. The work is divided into chapters framed by a prologue and capped by a final warning. There is a live band which doubles as puppeteers and characters and emits many sound cues. It requires an entire truckload of handmade very large puppets primarily formed with sheets of cardboard and papier-mâché, structurally reinforced with sticks, some of which are naturally harvested. There are a lot of staples used in emergency repairs. There are banners and flags all painted in the signature Bread and Puppet trademark style, reminiscent of political wood cuts.
There are raggedy costumes borrowed and sourced from thrift stores and volunteer closets: Bread and Puppet is famous for its Cheap Art manifesto. https://breadandpuppet.org/product/why-cheap-art-manifesto
I would stash my belongings each night , and change and grab dinner behind the Bread and Puppet Press store—the ensemble draws much of its income from the sale of artwork created at the Vermont Studio. These colorful hand printed banners and posters festooned across the back of the space are filled with joy and resistance.
I cannot tell you what the audience witnessed after they entered the cool bistro and art gallery that precedes the performing space and took their seats. I cannot, as I usually do, review this show. But immersing myself in this work through rehearsals, discussions and notes, and then at last presenting it for an enthusiastic sold out audience three times, I will tell you that the meaning and profundity of this work emerged and resonated and became a part of me, just as I became a part of it. It is a lamentation that stretched back into history and out into our human future. As the work began, I leapt out on stage as a soldier with a name, all bravado and warlike energy, and I am quickly vanquished, trampled and spend the rest of the show as an everyman: a clown, a bearer of the thousands dead, a lifeless body hugged by an enormous blue Mother, a one among many. It was moving to be a part of this and it was metaphorical of so much of what we are living through. The show mentions grief a lot. And we are all grieving what we have lost. The only way to move on is to move through.
As I approached the first live show I have been in since the pandemic, it was a daunting experience, trying to schedule a test then hoping my PCR test results would come in on time to rehearse, trying to assess how comfortable I felt in close quarters with people from all over the country who had recently traveled, knowing that although Omicron was fading, the hospital in my town is at capacity for ICU beds. The entire cast and volunteers had to be fully vaccinated and tested to participate. When you head to the theatre, do you think about what these artists have to go through be there to perform for you? I now have a visceral feeling for what that is like and I doubt I will forget it. The sacrifice is more palpable now. And we as a cast bonded in the way that ensembles do, brought together for a difficult task and triumphing just by showing up and doing the work.
Before the show, in his curtain speech welcoming the audience, Festival Artistic Director Blair Thomas noted that the world that we knew is now gone and the world that is coming has not yet formed and so we exist in this liminal space. It is such an uncomfortable place to be. We have to keep having difficult conversations about what our responsibility is to the collective good. We have to face that capitalism doesn’t always deliver on its promises. We have to realize that we are all interconnected—your lack of vaccination means someone in my family can’t access an ICU bed. We all have to show up for one another. And so I can think of no more fitting ritual for our time than a Greek Tragedy spectacle puppet show, reminding us that despite the loss and pain we must keep on.
Bread and Puppet Theatre presented The Persians at the Epiphany Center for the Arts in Chicago as part of the Fourth Annual Chicago International Puppet Festival on January 28th and 29th 2022. For more information on the Chicago Puppet Fest and to sign up for notifications go to https://chicagopuppetfest.org/ For more information on Bread and Puppet Theatre and to buy some art to support their work, go to https://breadandpuppet.org/