When you see him onstage, it’s pretty clear that Bread and Puppet’s Peter Schumann enjoys his line of work. The company’s new show (created by Schumann & Co. and performed with local volunteers) could hardly be called lighthearted: Their double-bill includes Attica, originally staged in 1971 to protest the disastrous events at the prison, and Man of Flesh and Cardboard, a new work tracing the travails of Wikileak-er Bradley Manning. But the evening, which begins with brass-band singalongs on First Avenue and ends with the company’s trademark garlicky snacks, is surprisingly warm and lively, despite the grim subject matter.
In Attica, the more coherent of the two, giant marionettes lurch through a series of tableaux, relating the catastrophe of 40 years ago: inmates, protesting violent mistreatment, rebelled, taking several guards hostage. Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller—here resembling a large, dimwitted raisin—sent in state police, with horrifically deadly results. The piece concludes with an image of unresolved sorrow: a dead prisoner’s loved one mourns, her immense paper-mache head bent sadly over a pile of red fabric remains.
Man of Flesh and Cardboard considers Manning’s controversial decision to send a trove of army documents to Wikileaks, and his subsequent military imprisonment on charges of “aiding the enemy.” Many lively sequences ensue: There’s a cadre of tiny green plastic soldiers, a chorus line of cardboard skeletons, and a haunting bit where black-draped personifications of “darkness” maul a helpless Manning puppet. But for all these vivid moments, the performance drags, and ends up feeling diffuse: Are we meant to ponder the meaning of war crimes and national security in an Internet age? Or the conditions of military prisoners? Or all prisoners?
The evening’s real highlight is the kazoo-and-fiddle-playing Schumann, who inserts gleeful narration—as well as high-spirited gibberish and casual instructions to performers—between scenes. It’s hard not to be charmed by his twinned passions for puppetry and lefty politics, still vibrant after all these years.