Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in puppetry

Ulysses takes down the suitors who would have Penelope's hand in The Return of Ulysses.
As I took my seat at the Cyclorama last weekend to take in Bread and Puppet's version of Claudio Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses (original title: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria) I knew I was about to witness a car crash. For Peter Schumann, the shaggy guru of Bread and Puppet, is all about "cheap art." But Claudio Monteverdi, the guy who practically invented opera, was all about (shall we say) expensive art. Think of Schumann, and you imagine brass bands in the great outdoors. Think of Monteverdi, and you hear chamber music - or even sacred music. Schumann - broad. Monteverdi - subtle. Schumann - protest. Monteverdi - acceptance. You can't get further apart than these two auteurs.

But if I expected a car crash, what I got was a train wreck. Schumann did exactly the opposite of what he should have done, IMHO - he didn't really listen to Monteverdi at all, or even pay attention to the themes of his source. For the story of The Odyssey should have proven fascinating new terrain for the crunchy Bread and Puppeteers. It is, after all, a tale of the re-integration of the military man back into domestic society - even back into the marriage bed (fighting all the way, btw).

But how does a grizzled war protester even begin to treat the humanization of his longtime nemesis? Well, I guess he doesn't. Instead, Schumann tried to yoke Ulysses to our current egregious misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The calmly rendered scenes of slaughter of the local populace by American soldiers (with audio drawn from Wikileak-ed tapes of the conflict) were indeed chilling in their deadpan jargon and banality. But their connection to the tale of Ulysses was, at best, oblique. And the imposition of a brass band onto Monteverdi's delicate score - well, of this let no more be said; aside from a few appropriately raucous blares, instrumentally the piece was a defiant disaster. The soloists were a bit better, but were clearly stretched beyond their limits (and the dreadful acoustics of the Cyclorama did nobody any favors). Surprisingly, however, the choruses came off rather well - largely thanks to the direction of the unbelievably versatile Greg Corbino (who also sang and played trumpet and accordion). The choruses weren't polished, mind you, but had a rough lyricism that gave a hint of what a Bread and Puppet/Claudio Monteverdi mash-up might have been like if Schumann had made a more honest attempt at one.

Still, despite everything, the evening had its moments; some of the choreography was striking, and Schumann's gigantic puppets often did their familiar magic. (This time around, Schumann not only cribbed from Egon Schiele but also from Picasso, who seemed to have provided inspiration for Minerva, Ulysses's ship, and other masks and props.)

As usual, I left Bread and Puppet wishing I'd liked the show more, and musing in puzzlement over the troupe's cult. It is of course only smug to smile at B&P's passion, which I don't think has had much of any political effect since the 60's. Their protests may be a lost cause, but then almost all the best causes are lost causes, aren't they. Schumann's essential problem, it seems to me, is that the very political situation that fuels his outrage - America's dismaying ability to wage foreign war while maintaining domestic peace - also renders him politically impotent. Only when the draft was on - that is, when our warmongering touched the heartland itself - did Bread and Puppet have political traction. Which is a situation the worldly Monteverdi, I think, would have understood perfectly.

1 comment:

  1. I did not attend for obvious reasons (notably that it would have been immensely awkward), but when I saw the press release back in October, it was pretty obvious that there would be some incongruity between the themes Schumann wanted to address and the themes of Ulysses' story. It's too bad, since he does interesting stuff when he adapts the work of Brecht and Weill.

    However, generally speaking: I do find his choreography very interesting, which is part of why I worked with them in the past.