If you are under the impression that lively avant-garde theater has disappeared or is unavailable in the Hudson Valley, you might be daydreaming the wrong dream. There is something at Bard College you will find interesting, original, and entertaining, as well as thought-provoking. It is a syncretic work by five talented artists who have collaborated to involve puppets, song, music, mime, masks, script, banners, statues, and powerful drama. I refer to Requiem for Anna Politkovskaya at Bard’s LUMA Theater.
The Prologue evokes a primitivistic landscape population as female deer puppets. One is fed and petted by a strange-hatted man. The deer die of the poison; from the death-throes of the deer identical strange-hatted men emerge to assert the new patriarchal society of conformity, to which various parables and allegories append. Some are bitingly satirical, contemporary.
A bejeweled circus performer-orator, marvelously delineated and bracingly sung by tenor Gregory Corbino (a guest artist, as other singers and actors are volunteer Bard students), delivers Miltonic monologues defending dictatorial policies in defense of a hoodwinked public, the audience. This devilish role is loosely based upon the magician in the opening scenes of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita. Part of the genius of the orator’s role is to implicate the audience in his evil as he delivers improvisational flattery to members in the audience: how individuals have dressed for the occasion, what they may be thinking, or anticipating, etc. Wouldn’t they all be driving a Mercedes-Benz if they agreed with him?
The nimble text and lyrics by John Freedman evokes parallels to Vladimir Putin and perhaps even our home-grown imitator. Occasional scat singing and double-entendre lyrics to suitable and haunting music composed by Alexander Bakshi create an aura of meta-theater. Deft allegory imbues the puppets, both monstrous and human, of Amy Trompetter, one of the original Bread and Puppet Theater puppeteers, who has a puppet museum in Rosendale, N.Y.; currently, Amy teaches at Barnard College in Manhattan. (A couple of years ago I reviewed a work that Amy Trompetter designed puppets for and you can read that here.) The parade of these comic and demonic puppets creates an eerie impression that lingers in one’s imagination like a dream one cannot forget.
The main plot dramatizes the 2006 assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Chechnya. Since not all theater-goers might be familiar with the specific circumstances of her assassination (or the circumstances of Chechens at the time), there should be more information in the eight-page program (where there is an empty half-page). Or a biographical hand-out sheet.
There are a number of forces that epitomize the Russian experience: the archaic beauty of nature within the Slavic pagan tradition, the inherent opposition of the individual vs. the state, the role of the writer to tell the truth, and the ultimate exaltation of the martyr. The final scene presents a beatification of Anna. While this might sound corny, it is a luminous and satisfying conclusion of affirming hope in the face of nightmare. Musical Director Liudmila Bashki has done a wonderful job with talented Bard students.
This is the second performance of this marvelous work, the first performance having been done at Barnard College. This one hour drama should have vigorous legs in other colleges across the country and with luck it may invigorate avant-garde theater throughout this country. There are four more performances this weekend. A sampling of Amy Trompetter's puppet work appears below. For tickets go to http://fishercenter.bard.edu/events/event/?eid=133751
Note: Teaser photo and wise input from Tonia Shoumatoff.