In what is surely a unique adaptation of the Christmas story, Theater for the New City played host to a three-week run of Brother Marx Nativity,performed by the Bread & Puppet Theater. The Vermont-based collective has a reputation for innovative, thought-provoking works, and this was no exception.
Both theatres were formed in the early 1960s and both are dedicated to producing theatre that is both "political and spectacular." Bread & Puppet founder Peter Schumann is credited as director for Nativity, which intersperses events from tile Gospels of Luke and Matthew with quotes from Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. The quotes were painted, often pell-mell, onto large banners among intriguing and disturbing visual images that underscore Marx's observations about labor in capitalist society. There were many headless bodies, and floating heads without bodies, and one painting of a man whose feet are the wheel of a machine and whose head is sprouting branches like a tree. The actors brought out the banners and read the quotes, sometimes singly, sometimes in unison.
Schumann states in his production notes that "Brother Marx Nativity was the only Christmas story Marx ever wrote, and he never even knew it." However, there was a forced quality to some of the implied connections between the sources. It was sometimes difficult to grasp the correlation between readings and scenes. The show was technically well-done, with the exception of the lighting, which consisted of three floodlights on stage that were moved around and turned on and off by the actors as necessary. It could be argued that the lighting contributed to the fluidity and eeriness of the piece; it was also so dim as to make the action. difficult to follow.
The wonderful cast consisted of eight Bread & Puppet members and twelve local volunteers. Schumann himself stood onstage throughout the piece, playing various instruments and assisting with costume and lighting shifts. Apart from readings of Marx and the Bible, there was little intelligible dialogue; most action and emotions were communicated through body language and verbal noises
In addition to the expressive masks, the cast employed other papier-maché and cloth creations such as houses, reindeer, cardboard beds, and giant feet. Also of note was the use of unusual combinations of instruments such as an accordion, a violin, some sort of double-barreled horn which sounded like a trumpet, and an old-fashioned wind machine (cranked by the actors onstage). Marionettes were used in one scene toward the end; their strings were cut and they fell, only to rise again. Perhaps the most memorable and touching sequence featured the birtb of a calf, and its hesitant and hilarious first efforts at taking steps. These moments gave powerful testimony to the resiliency of hope and the power of human nature.
This rare New York engagement for Bread & Puppet was a welcome holiday treat. The troupe returns to Theater for the New City in March with a new show, and with any luck New York audiences will continue to benefit from this alliance for many years to come.
Lighting 0/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 Rachel-Louise Rubin
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