Face in the Crowd

Theater for the New City, where I completed a festival run of the new play Village, My Home yesterday evening, is a remarkable facility. It has four separate theaters of various sizes within the building. It also has a maze of tunnels within its basement, which house not only one of the performance spaces, but rehearsal space and administrative offices. And mounted on the walls of those tunnels are a dazzling cornucopia of props, masks, and decorations, from decades of shows past.

I mention this because it wound up affecting how a key portion of Village, My Home was staged. There’s a moment in the show when a group of tourists enter; they’re supposed to be in Times Square during the run-up to New Years’ Eve. The idea for that moment was for there to be a vast array of grotesque puppet faces mixed among the actors; a landscape out of a piece by Bread and Puppet Theater. Such an image was beyond our budget. Theater for the New City, however, allowed us to pull what we needed from their own supplies, down in that mysterious basement.

When it came time to tech the show, it turned out that what Theater for the New City had for us to use in that scene consisted of two items. One was a Venetian-style mask on a wooden dowel, which one of the actresses held aloft. The other was a meticulously crafted, gigantic puppet of a disembodied head. Theater for the New City presents political street theater every summer, and this gigantic head was clearly made for use in one of those productions, thirteen or fourteen years ago.

Because it was the head of Saddam Hussein.

I looked around me as it entered, this gigantic head of a genocidal strongman, looking to the people around me to verify that this was indeed what they wanted. I kept wondering if a voice would cry out, “Oh my God, that’s Saddam Hussein!” But no such voice was heard. The youngest members of the cast (and when you’re my age, the youngest members of the cast seem very young indeed) weren’t entirely sure whose likeness was represented by the puppet. Some guessed it was meant to be Richard Nixon; others, Walter Matthau. Most of the rest of the company just shrugged their shoulders and said, “well, that’s theater. It’s always kinda weird.”

And so Saddam Hussein became a member of our cast. And with each performance, as he made his brief cameo, I scanned the faces of our audience, wondering if the sight of this man, with whom this nation twice went to war, would provoke outrage. If people would be offended at our cavalier use of such an image. If people would storm out of our show.

And it never happened.

Only one review even mentioned that the head of Saddam Hussein made an appearance, and they assumed it was a moment of political commentary that we’d intended. Some of the folks with whom I spoke afterwards told me they’d shrugged it off as exactly what my cast mates had said, the weirdness of theater. But it seemed like a sizeable chunk of our audiences simply didn’t notice.

And it made me think about the person who’d created this thing in the first place.

Because here’s the thing – this was an incredibly well made gigantic puppet head of Saddam Hussein. Detailed, grotesque, a genuine work of art. And it would have been made, as I mentioned before, as part of a street theater performance during the Gulf War. (Well, during one of the two Gulf Wars – God, our history is depressing.) It would have been made to try and protest the war, to be part of a groundswell of popular opinion, part of a movement, to try and prevent our nation from making a disastrous mistake. It would have been a matter of real urgency for the artist who fashioned it, the most important thing they could possibly do in that historical moment. Whoever they were, they clearly poured their heart and soul, all their expertise, all their creativity, everything they had into making it. And now, all these years later, here it was as just another prop, being borrowed for a minute-long scene in some completely different show, before being brought back down to storage.

All the masks of Trump and Bannon and Kim Jong-Un and the like, being fashioned in small plucky theaters throughout the nation today – is this to be their fate as well? Years from now, will they be grabbed by directors yet unborn for their Brecht plays and avant-garde Shakespeare productions, while the cast gathers around and wonders who they could possibly be? And will they then be returned to the basement, at the end of the show’s run, to rest with all the other props, masks, and decorations, from decades of shows past?

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. And I’m not certain I want to know what it is.

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