Last Thursday Zach Kagan, master of the arts of ventriloquy, ventured down to Prentis Hall to review a very unusual and politically themed puppet show. Here’s what he took away from the experience.
Great Small Works presents “Toy Theatre of Terror as Usual Episode 13: Whistles and Leaks.” It’s a hell of a title. Of course, the particular get-together that Thursday night in the well-hidden Prentis Hall on 125th was about more than just puppets. It was about Bradley Manning, about how a war on terror creates terror itself, about poetry and conspiracy theories and artists coming together and sharing political art. But honestly, the puppets stole the show.
Bradley Manning is a U.S. Army Soldier and intelligence analyst who has been detained for leaking sensitive documents from SIRPNet, the military’s secure network, to Wikileaks. Manning had a troubled time in the military. At only 5′ 2” he admitted in personal documents that he felt uncomfortable around the “alpha male” soldiers at Base Hammer. Even before his arrest the army was considering withdrawing him from Iraq due to signs of stress and gender confusion. Manning was gay, but he also confessed to his commanding officer that he was interest in changing his gender. Terribly isolated and lonely in the military, Manning found company in the online hacker community. In early May of 2010 Manning was losing his composure. After he punched a female officer, Manning was demoted and told he would be discharged. Exasperated, Manning chose to vent to Adrian Lamo, a prominent hacker who was arrested in 2004. In long chat logs Manning explained everything, including how he gave information to Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange. It was Lamo who turned him in, and Manning has been detained in various facilities ever since.
The style of Great Small Works is rough, with the edges purposely left untrimmed: the show worked in a series of related visual vignettes. After a chorus of menacing laughter, the curtain rises revealing a golden ocean where Prometheus is chained to a rock, tormented by black helicopters instead of eagles. Throughout the production Manning is compared to Prometheus and choice excerpts of Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Unbound” occasionally play over the action. He is also represented as a butterfly, stifled in a plywood cocoon.
While the show does devote some time to Manning’s inner demons, more is spent trying to illustrate the evils of the military-industrial machine. Some moments come off eye-rollingly heavy-handed, such as when a banner that read “Brute Power Is Not Superior To A Flower” draped across the stage. Other scenes feature interesting visual imagery: a group of skeletons drive Iron Mountain trucks across the tiny stage, while shredded corporate documents are sucked through a clear vacuum tube behind them, all accompanied by the Safaris’ “Wipeout.” In another scene, the bronze gilded statue of Prometheus descends into its place at Rockefeller Plaza, complete with miniature ice skaters, while the cast of puppeteers sings a modified version of “Hosanna Rockefeller” from the German musical “Happy End.”
The show ends with the haunting footage of Iraqi journalists being attacked by an Apache Helicopter, from one of the tapes that Manning leaked. As the video transitions from blurry to focused Manning’s words echo louder and louder: “Hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington… what would you do?”
And with that the puppets were finished. Although a political debate sparked during the Q&A, Roberto Rossi of Great Small Works ended the event with the reflection that “some might say that political art is neither good politics nor good art.” Good or not, “Toy Theatre of Terror as Usual” is certainly thought provoking and strangely imaginative, if a bit unpolished. It’s the collected brain droppings of artistic minds riffing on current events. If that’s not engaging, I don’t know what is.