(Photo © David W. Fura)
(Photo © David W. Fura)
Puppet shows with substance? People around the world were doing them centuries before shows like Avenue Q and The Long Christmas Ride Home rolled around this season. Japanese bunraku puppetry dates back over a thousand years and took its traditional shape in the 17th century. Shadow puppetry is a staple of the Balinese theatre and is practiced throughout Indonesia. The ancient Greeks had marionettes, and any tourist walking the streets of Prague today knows how respected that form is in parts of Europe.

The recent swell of adult-oriented puppet theater defines itself in its opposition to the norm rather than its relation to the larger tradition. From Broadway to Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, the puppet artists of mainstream theater and pop culture create foul-mouthed, libidinous Muppets to show us the new face of puppetry, a gritty version of the kiddie counterpart.

Bread and Puppet Double Bill proves that the avant-garde techniques the Bread and Puppet Theater Company used to establish its reputation in leftist political theater during the 1960s have not lost their strength. The mammoth puppets that deconstruct U.S. foreign policy are part of world traditions rather than emulating the work of Jim Henson, and the forlorn puppet faces that represent the spoils of war stir audiences of all political persuasions. Although the Eastern European brass tunes and Living Theater-inspired movement techniques employed here come from past eras, they deeply affect modern day audiences caught in the whirlwind of an ever-changing world. Don't let the mock-mythical iconography and floral artwork fool you: The modes of expression that this company uses aren't just relics of the hippie era.

Yet much of the content of the first piece, "How to Turn Distress Into Success: A Parable of War," seems rather unfocused and out-of-date. One skit has a passing reference to the military draft that seems more appropriate to the Vietnam conflict than the war in Iraq. A march of "horses" played by actors in cheesecloth costumes makes for a pretty uninteresting spectacle, and there's an easy, familiar Santa Claus parody about commercialism. Artistic director Peter Schumann delivers the grand finale: Wearing 20-foot stilts and a hat of stars, stripes, and skeletons, he plays an enormous, menacing Uncle Sam. It's almost too cute to be subversive but it rounds off the tepid first act on a high note.

Act II, a continuation of "How To Turn Distress Into Success," represents the type of political theater that gave the company its name. It begins with a September 11 re-enactment in which two crude cardboard towers fall on a mother called "Truth" and her daughter, "Population." This staging doesn't aim for subtlety or beg interpretation; it confronts the New York audience with a simple and painful image. Truth's mask, somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese Noh Theater, strips her of identity and turns her into an Everywoman mourning her child; the quasi-religious memorial that follows, with chants from the Republic of Georgia and subdued lighting, is respectful and deeply moving. The piece's political allegory begins tactfully after this ceremony: Tears that fall from the buildings become drumsticks that beat the timpani of Rage. The infant Population learns the art of war in a butcher's shop and the "Collateral Damage Dancers" perform a solemn number. Criticisms of the war in Iraq may or may not be facile, but Bread and Puppet's presentation is sophisticated and effective.

The second piece of the double bill, "The Standing in the Way Bystander Commemoration," is based on a 1960s street play called A Man Says Goodbye to His Mother, updated with more Georgian chants and 18-foot puppets. For all of the show's grandeur, the production values are decidedly simple and informal; the troupe believes that "Art is Food," and serves bread after every performance. Some theatergoers may be surprised to see the artistic director give stage directions in the middle of a scene and may be unaccustomed to handmade scenery, but the production and performance style -- which represents an anti-technology and anti-capitalist philosophy -- wins us over with its sincerity. Even those who disagree with the Bread and Puppet Theater Company's politics must agree that its work is powerful.