A revolution stirs as people tire of being broke and held captive by their government. It's a faraway place that seems familiar in The Public Access Center for the Obvious Presents: The Situation, staged recently by Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater at the Mudlark Public Theatre.
Written and directed by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann, the show features a series of vignettes that come fast and hit like gut punches. Actors play multiple unnamed characters and wear intricately crafted large-scale puppet masks and figures while exploring the decline of Western civilization. Some acts critique capitalism and labor economies. Visually, the piece is stunning — loud, boisterous and overtly political. The combined storytelling and visuals could be described as the inside of a left-leaning sociology professor's head during an acid trip. But even with its many set pieces and props, the story is skillfully organized and told.
Theater can raise awareness of issues such as inequality and abuse, and some shows use realism to confront gritty conditions. But this one employs absurdity to critique institutions. Audience members are told there is a "situation," which is constantly being defined — it's everything and nothing — and redefined. This technique disrupts the familiar in order to turn ideas upside down.
Big band numbers help with transitions, and these playful toe-tapping interludes underscore the narrative and help control the show's energy. There are spirited songs (a polka about banks) and dark ones (bemoaning the death of civilization). Music can unite people, and there's a moment when the audience is asked to serve as a makeshift choir. These scenes come together beautifully, but the show's strength is the company's masterful puppetry.
Crafted from papier-mache and cardboard, puppets range in size from small hand-size figures to towering stone monuments. Sometimes company members wear puppet heads that cover their bodies. The puppets often have wild faces, some look like animated tree bark and there's a giant rhinoceros — all of which is unsettling, funny and thrilling.
The vignettes are organized by an associative quality. Connected threads offer commentary on economics and inequality, but the structured chaos allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. The trajectory takes a turn when the show's message gets heavy-handed. Characters urge the audience to wake up, see what's going on and do something about it, but the production stops short of suggesting the next step. There's a call for change, but no thoughts on how to achieve it.
Although the end is unsatisfying, The Public Access Center for the Obvious Presents: The Situation is a mesmerizing production from an exciting and daring theater company.