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Urban Renewal? Hermann Hesse's ‘The City’ With Puppets

Modern Times Theater performs Hermann Hesse’s fairy tale “The City.” (Courtesy of the theater)

Modern Times Theater performs Hermann Hesse’s fairy tale “The City.” (Courtesy of the theater)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Modern Times Theater is a vaudevillian enterprise, part funny-serious puppets, part jaunty live 1920s band, part serious social critique, part shenanigans.

Comprised of wife Rose Friedman and husband Justin Lander, the theater performs their toy theater version of Hermann Hesse’s 1910 fairy tale “The City” at the Puppet Showplace Theatre, 32 Station St., Brookline, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16.

“It tells the story of that city from the arrival of people to the exit of people. It’s a 25-minute show that covers 2,000 years of history,” Lander says.

“In vivid cardboard technicolor, you will see the development of an agrarian society,” the theater hawks its show. “With little more than trash and toys, you will see the glorious arrival of the urban world. And in our miniscule stage of wonder, you will see the collapse of a great society. The droll superintendents of this production are none other than Punch and Judy, puppetry’s favorite jerk and his loudmouth wife. Never before has such an epic drama been revealed in such pint-sized proportions!”

Ultimately it’s a parable critiquing big city life. “It’s not so much that cities themselves are a problem,” Lander clarifies. “It’s more like cities are a condensation of civilization. And in the rural, you get more dilution. We’re not pooh-poohing urban centers. We’re promoting a different pace.” As well as a different scale and sort of economy. “We’re promoting a slow world over a fast world. It’s just nicer slow. You have time to see it.”

Their “The City” is a toy theater show—a puppet version of epic, full-scale theater sort of shrunk down to dollhouse size in the wash. The main program is augmented by their Rural Person’s Verbal Reclamation Front, which Lander says, aims “to reclaim language from the icy grip of capitalism and return it to the soft ground of the agrarian world.” Also they’ll play “coronet and cigar box ukulele, the bicycle pump, the jug, the hooty horns, and the fire bell,” Lander says. “Every song guaranteed novel, even though they’re almost 100 years old.”

The duo are veterans of the giant puppet pageants and circuses of Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater, and also make up half of the producing team of Vermont Vaudeville. They practice what they preach by operating a small farm where they live in East Hardwick, Vermont.

“We milk the cow, raise half to two-thirds of our food, and we sell chickens,” Lander says. “Though I don’t know if we will this year because the price of grain has gone out of control. We consider it more of a homestead than a farm because it’s more for our own consumption than a business.”

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