A scene from The Return of Ulysses
(© Massimo Schuster)
A scene from The Return of Ulysses
(© Massimo Schuster)
If you're going to provide a 39-year run of radical holiday productions -- as Bread & Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann has done all these decades at the Theater for the New City -- not every show is necessarily going to be a knockout. The troupe's latest work, The Return of Ulysses, sketchily based on the 1640 Monteverdi opera, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, is definitely on the understated side as these spectacles go.

The work begins with two brief prologues, and the first of these, "Modern Sky," represents Bread & Puppet's strong suit: incisive political commentary swathed in unsettling, dreamlike visuals. A cluster of black-hooded figures bounce in an eerie oom-pah-pah as they blow into long black plastic noodles (the sound is a cross between horses chuffing and a rather ruder effect) as others alternately prostrate themselves and manipulate white cardboard figures, ultimately tossing them aside like so much human garbage. Meanwhile, the musicians have begun reciting dialogue lifted from Wikileaks footage of U.S. military forces in Baghdad, 2007.

Serving as segue to the opera, the second prologue, "Antique Sky," presents an assortment of quirky arcadian types -- all sporting Schumann's imaginative, personality-suffused puppet heads -- engaging in a courtly dance. It's at this point that, for the musically sensitive, some misgivings may set in. Schumann's signature brass band may be perfectly equipped to lead rabble-rousing street parades, but within the confines of a theater, their constant battles over pitch can prove painful. Nor are the singers sufficiently schooled in this delicate subgenre of classical music.

However, there's plenty of pageantry on view once the main event begins. Ulysses, on the final leg of his epic journey, is alternately thwarted and aided by various mischievous gods, including an impressive urn-headed Neptune. At length, he arrives home in time to challenge the suitors who have cropped up in his absence, hoping for a crack at Penelope (played by Schumann himself, in the mask of a flaxen-hair maiden resembling Jane Krakowski on heavy meds).

What one may not be able to discern, amid the discordant music and inchoate crowd scenes, is the political agenda that usually informs Schumann's choice of material. Is this work about the urgency of formulating an exit strategy? It's hard to know, but one can still admire Schumann, who from the Vietnam era onward, has never wavered from the purity of his purpose or the singularity of his vision.