Aristotle, that first theater critic of record, insisted that all plays include six elements. He named plot the most important, followed by character, diction, and thought. Spectacle and song he rather disdained, noting: "The spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry." (Those who have suffered through the worst excesses of the Broadway musical may find themselves agreeing. That chandelier, that helicopter. . . .) Of course, a generation of avant-garde artists have somewhat redeemed the spectacular. The best works by Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, or Mabou Mines are showy and artisticcomplex, eloquent, deeply felt. Two new plays, though, suggest Aristotle may have been on to something after all. Bread and Puppet Theater'sThe Divine Reality Comedy, at Theater for the New City, and Au Revoir Parapluie, at BAM, offer lavish spectaclebut little else.
Now celebrating its 44th year of yeasty agitprop, Bread and Puppet brings its version of Dante to New York. Actually, despite its title, The Divine Reality Comedy owes little to Dante and nothing to the poet's "sweet new style." Reversing the typical structure, the show begins in paradise (a haven of consumerism), makes a quick stop in purgatory (Guantánamo), and ends in inferno (also Guantánamo). White-suited apprentices lug the typically outsized and genial cardboard-and-papier- mâché puppets. Meanwhile, troupe founder Peter Schumann plays an inebriate Virgil, clomping about in a Santa suit and making fart noises. How, er, jolly.
The piece attacks familiar targets: overconsumption, American complacency, the war on terror. While the views that Bread and Puppet promotes might shake up some of the general populace, they're hardly likely to challenge the lefty audience at Theater for the New City. This lends the play an air of low-rent self- righteousness that no amount of cute cardboard cherubs, rearing horses, or dancing skeletons can excuse. Why do admirable politics so often make for terrible art? Happily, the bread is tasty as ever.
Altogether less substantial, though far lovelier, was Au Revoir Parapluiewhich translates roughly as Until We See Each Other Again Umbrella. The first-night audience at BAM seemed to desire that reunion acutely. When the lights came down on this mythopoetic morass, they rose for a standing ovation. Dazzled by the stage pictures, they seemed happy to ignore the piece's lack of content. Very loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it mostly seemed an excuse for director-performer James Thiérrée and his collaborators to lope about the set in surrealist costumes, entangling and impaling themselves in and upon fishing nets and hooks.
Thiérrée, a grandson of Charlie Chaplin, has the face of a matinee idol, the body of a danseur, and the soul, alas, of a prop comedian. He can leave no onstage object unfiddled with. Sometimes the results are charming, as in his duel with a rocking chair, other times enervating. How often can he ensnare himself in his own blazer? Endlessly. You can't fault Thiérrée's skills, nor those of dancers Kaori Ito and Satchie Noro, singer Maria Sendow, or acrobat Magnus Jakobsson. But Thiérrée doesn't always know how best to harness those talents. He's most effective at staging solos, less able to manage multiple bodies. Without much in the way of significance or story arc, even the best individual bits add up to little. (Starved for meaning, my date impishly suggested: "I think the fishing net is Iraq.") A few moments lingera billowing costume, a sparkish piece of mime, that rocking chairbut the rest fade into dreamy vagary. Ultimately, the fanciful gives over to the precious, the daring to the innocuous. Though Thiérrée bids us, like the pop singer Rihanna, to shelter under his umbrella, I'd just as soon get wet.
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