This 'Reality' Not Very Divine

The Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama is a unique venue—circular and warm, it was built in the late 19th century to house a 450-foot wide and 50-foot tall painting of the battle of Gettysburg. It does seem appropriate, then, that it should host a show that comments on another war.

But maybe not this one.

“The Divine Reality Comedy,” performed at the Cyclorama from Feb. 4 to 10, is a complex production by the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater, featuring both masked and unmasked actors, elaborate props, and the occasional puppet. It’s a modern adaptation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” a medieval epic poem that detailed the author’s view of the Christian afterlife.

“The Divine Reality Comedy” is perhaps best described as a proselytizing Polyphonic Spree meets political theater. As intriguing as that sounds, the production was an interminable hour and a half of paper-thin commentary on the Bush administration through the means of paper-maché and pantomime.

While Bread and Puppet’s intent was perhaps laudable, the case against Bush has been made before, and more compellingly (not to mention more concisely). Although the company attempted an impressive integration of multiple media, the performance utterly lacked dramatic cohesion.

As the audience filed in, a white-clad throng convulsed rhythmically to the energetic music of local band “The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band,” which would prove to be the highlight of the evening. The dancers this band accompanied composed the play’s ensemble of twenty; they ranged in age between their teens and seventies and were in varying states of hygiene. While seven of the players were of Bread and Puppet’s own company, the rest were volunteer puppeteers local to the Boston area.

Spectators filled around 150 ‘war-torn’ folding chairs. A row of pillows in front of the seats was occupied by the dozen or so crustiest hipsters in attendance, several of whom passed around a mysterious loaf of bread.

The connections to Dante’s work were so tenuous that the show necessitated large signs to indicate which stage of “The Divine Comedy” the writers were at that point purporting to parody. The ensemble was a little too self-satisfied with the clunky, unconvincing symbolism.

But while the apparent eagerness of the actors was admirable, the choreography of their collective movement topped off at approximately elementary school Christmas pageant quality. Some of the actors even came off as smug: during a dramatic tribute to political detainees, one actor grinned upon flubbing a line.

Paradise boiled down to a jejune rant against commercialism. It was in Dante’s Purgatory that the play became overtly politically charged. In Hell, a series of perplexing, abstract torture sequences involving puppets and the reading of an interrogation log served to honor the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay. While the material addressed was of the utmost gravity, these scenes were slow-paced and excruciatingly drawn-out. What should have been moving was soporific. And for all its intentional weirdness, “The Divine Reality Comedy” still managed to be predictable.

The Bread and Puppet Theater brought with them a complementary political art exhibition, installed in the 180 degrees of the Cyclorama unoccupied by the set. Childlike flowers were juxtaposed unsettlingly with grotesque renderings of prisoners, and audience members wandered about in a stupor as they attempted to read the illegible scrawlings along the wall’s length.

Every 10 minutes or so, a moment of humor lent “The Divine Reality Comedy” a flicker of fun. There was the burlesque ringmaster of Paradise, a nasty and ragged Santa Claus, and the 10-second appearance of Marx Brothers-esque “resurrection specialists.” But each highlight was quickly compromised by an equally disappointing set piece, like the three-minute sequence in which the cast was slowly stalked by two actors half-heartedly portraying giant shoes. The company’s need to pile on meaning often foiled its potential charm. The Bread and Puppet Theater did perform two kids-geared matinees over the weekend—maybe their aesthetic benefited from such thematic simplification.

The production had several other redeeming qualities. The action—or lack thereof—played out before a gorgeous painted backdrop of a forest. Throughout “The Divine Reality Comedy,” the company made excellent use of exquisite two-dimensional cut-outs of clouds, stars and faces. Puppetry and design is clearly the group’s forte.

A particularly impressive feat of costuming surfaced when the ensemble donned security cameras for heads, in what was stylistically unique yet contrived commentary on post-Patriot Act surveillance.

But the impact of this too was lessened when one of the cast members, winding through the first row of seats, chose to make the notes for this review part of the performance by writing what must have been intended to be a resoundingly profound “Why?” in the margins of my notebook. I could have posed the same question right back.