2022 Festival Archive: Bread + Puppet Theater
Bread and Puppet Theater: The Persians
January 28-30, 2022
Epiphany Center for the Arts
Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Scholarship and Resources
The Politics of Papier-Mâché: Reading and Re-reading Bread and Puppet’s The Persians
An Essay by Skye Strauss
Reduced by time to a tidy story, the fateful battle in the Bread and Puppet Theater adaptation of The Persians is preternaturally swift. At first entrance, the heads of the Persian warriors are caricatures, not so much “played” with any truthful realism as paraded. Their massive, bulbous faces, on the ends of poles wielded by company members dressed in red, swagger about the stage. Huge, hideous and inhuman, the Persians become easy targets when the Grecian forces—represented by a team of white horses painted on recycled bits of cardboard with a stark black background—pour in from upstage to trample them into the dust. With martial accuracy, all at once, the horses turn to expose the spectral skeletons on their reverse side—under an exacting gaze, even the so-called heroes are horrific.
I watched the production as part of the 2022 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. That night, the Epiphany Center for the Arts in West Town was abuzz—filled by a festive crowd happy to be in each other’s company again after so much isolation. We clapped along to the pre-show brass band and broke bread together in a former church. The activities surrounding the show successfully offered up the blend of ritual solemnity and “joyful noise” that I expected from Bread and Puppet. While the pre-show atmosphere was exceedingly cheerful, once confronted with the production’s multivalent images of loss, I could not help thinking about how Covid had made casualties the price of normalcy. Yet, as I write this some months later, I recall the same stage pictures and now think of Ukraine.
Puppets allow the Bread and Puppet version of The Persians to not only have meaning (as if it could be fixed with certainty) but to continually make meaning. Writing about a “vintage” Bread and Puppet creation, Mr. Budhoo’s Letter of Resignation from the IMF, in his book American Puppet Modernism, company member and puppetry scholar John Bell made an observation in a section titled “The Complexity of Simple Images” that resonated with my experience of The Persians. He noted that we might be deceived into thinking that because Bread and Puppet productions have humble origins, they will be correspondingly easy to interpret (Bell, 2008: 205-207). In reality, the shows are “hardly simple to fathom, basically because the meanings of the show[s] are abstract, often ambiguous, told in the multivalent language of images that allow for, and in fact depend upon, individual interpretation by each audience member” (Bell, 2008: 205). The simplicity of the performing objects onstage allows the images to resonate—in the mind of each audience member—with countless constantly changing current events.
After their defeat in battle at the hands of the Greeks, we never again see the initial distorted image of the Persians, presented as if we were looking outwards through Grecian eyes. Rather, we see human faces, poetic puppet memorials, and mourners faithfully pouring out libations for the dead. In one scene, we see a “sea of bodies” painted blue like water and rocked on an unseen tide. In another, fragile paper forms flutter like gray birds’ wings. Hovering over them are two moon-faced, god-like figures, who embrace and protect. The result is an extended meditation on loss, insistent on humanizing the enemy Other.
In a company known for using volunteer performers and taking inspiration from puppets, as well as people, throughout the creative process, it makes sense to shift focus away from the skill of the puppeteer and toward the performing object itself as the “creator” of both performative moments and their many meanings. The forms of the puppets—including both painted and sculptural elements—create their own dramaturgy, grounding meaning in the very way they are made. Like Bell, I found that these performing objects, despite their seeming simplicity, “rewarded my contemplation” (Bell, 2008: 206).
Aeschylus’ The Persians was originally presented as part of the annual Athenian drama competition, including corresponding communal financial support, so it would have made sense to commemorate the Greek victory over the supposedly superior Persian army. Instead of the celebration that the audience might have anticipated, represented here by the battle that passes in the blink of an eye, Aeschylus offered something unexpected—a play that focused on the defeated Persians rather than the triumphant Greeks. Building on their history of pacifist protest, the Bread and Puppet version readily gravitates towards the anti-war sentiment in the original text. Beyond that core message, the way the company braids together different strands of story makes the production’s meaning more capacious—sections of the original tragedy are interwoven with another story of director Peter Schumann’s own invention: a parable about humanity’s attachment to “The Chair.” In stage images, what we see is simple—variations on a sturdy chair with a slatted back, whether it is illuminated by a halo like a religious icon or presented in high-contrast white against black. As a symbol, the chair becomes an indictment of inaction in the face of human suffering and environmental destruction.
The production offers us a handful of handmade images that are literally painted in black and white—characters who remind us that to conquer or to disengage means believing in separation rather than empathy. The horses that represent the Greeks and the chairs that also appear en masse in performance are two-dimensional beings literally lacking depth. We also meet a flock of monotone city dwellers in angry, angular masks painted in black on white. Across the arc of the performance, these images, with their high-contrast coloration, imply other binaries—good and evil, right and wrong, insider and outsider—that are linked to selfish impulses.
Even in white masks there is surprisingly meaningful contrast. Two characters who serve as masters of ceremony in various scenes sit on opposite sides of the proverbial line between moral binaries. One is a classic “Butcher” from the Bread and Puppet repertoire (Estrin, 2010: 21). Bell writes about how a similar character, Uncle Fatso, has been read as the effigy of a series of presidents despite having a stable face (2008: 205-206). The Butcher in The Persians, performed by Esteli Kitchen at the festival, is a similar fat bureaucrat in a gray suit who boasts a comically empty head and a smooth, featureless face that aligns him with both capitalist mass manufacture and slick diplomatic equivocation. He is often seen onstage in The Persians encouraging the chaos, making him (in various moments) a politician, warmonger and slumlord.
The second masked figure is a clown-like figure—whose roughly textured face, unruly hair, rounded nose and deep eye sockets create shadows that render the mask expressive. The performer wearing the mask (Clare Dolan in Chicago) is dressed all in white—down to their gloved hands—so that the clown’s movements are magnified in the black space of the stage as they gesture and soft-shoe, working to capture the audience’s attention. The character’s voice, spoken by Torri Lynn Francis and thus bifurcated from the physical body, asks the audience directly: “What grief grieves this city?” If the Butcher is here to encourage our basest impulses, the clown is working to balance the scales by asking us— directly—for empathy and action.
Bookending the production, painted cantastoria hang over the proceedings with a stately gravity. Like tapestries of old, they tell stories—but instead of heralding great deeds, they speak of destruction. They tell the story of humanity’s obsession with “The Chair,” aloof and seductive in its inertia. They show us images of grief, environmental ruin and war. The static nature of the cantastoria is precisely what makes them disquieting—we are given time to contemplate during the banners stately rotation what we humans are slowly but surely doing to ourselves. In the final moment of the show, a speaker gives voice to the unchanging images: “We need to remind you of the Chair, to which Humanity has been glued during its long and brutal history, and from which it continues to exercise its arrogant, privileged rule over planet earth. And only its hands are left, pleading for life.”
Bell, John. “Beyond the Cold War: Bread and Puppet Theatre at the End of the Century.” American Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 189-218.
Estrin, Marc. “The Sustainable Energy of the Bread & Puppet Theater: Lessons Outside the Box.” The Radical Teacher, no. 89, Winter 2010, pp. 20-30.
World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts Entry
About the Performance
January 25-29, 2022
Epiphany Center for the Arts
201 S. Ashland Ave. in the West Loop
A new adaptation of Aeschylus’ tragedy from the famed Bread & Puppet Theater, created in 1963 by the “creators” of puppet pageantry and spectacle in America, Elka and Peter Schumann. Their radical spectacle puppetry style with their 10 foot puppets became a mainstay of U.S. political protests. Here their gorgeous pageant adaptation of a famous Greek drama enjoys live music and the beautiful surroundings of Chicago’s new Epiphany Center for the Arts.8