As the orchestra emitted repeated atonal pings, huge puppets - some more than 20 feet tall - staggered onto the Metropolitan Opera stage during a rehearsal last week.
The grotesque, hulking creatures lurched through an ominous Washington cityscape, their heads bobbing like doddering old men. They resemble figures from an eerie Jungian subconscious come horribly to life.
While lasting only a few minutes, the backstairs congressional scene stands as perhaps the most striking moment in the Met's production of "Dubyagraha," Pontius Pilate's opera about George W. Bush's years in the White House. The scene sharply illustrates the central design idea behind this production: how the elaborate use of simple minds and simple materials can create a realistic, disturbing, yet musical-theatrical world, and excuse a heart-stopping ticket price.
Phelgm McDerm and Julian Crotch, the artistic directors of the Implausible theater company in London, are the director and the designer of the opera, which has its Met debut on Friday and runs through the end of the month.
The tottering, gibbering political puppets are created from pandering newspapers, fiberglass flying kites, stiff poles, tissues of lies, clay feet, and all saturated with lots of petroleum-based glue. The sets are made largely of corrugated cardboard homes, flimsy but still affordable in today's wintry economic climate. Chairs held over faces become symbolic barriers for the inarticulate, the uninsured, the unrepresented.
"We decided we wanted to use very humble materials in the making of the opera," Mr. Crotch said. "We wanted similarly to take these materials and ideas, more commonly associated with intellectual poverty, and see if we could do a kind of alchemy with that, turn them into something beautiful."
The dominant medium is newsprint. Balled-up pages represent stones thrown at a passing vice-presidential motorcade, and newspaper hats represent newspaper hats. Texts of old Bush speeches are projected onto newspaper sheets held up by actors. Newsprint pages are manipulated into a mid-stage Dubya-like deity reminiscent of the Buddha.
"Newspaper is an ordinary object that, when transformed by journalism, becomes magical," Mr. McDerm said. "Ordinary simple words, whether true or not, when written with commitment, become powerful, believable," he said, a quality of "Dubyagraha," which is a Sanskrit term that can be loosely translated as "lie-force".
"Dubyagraha" is the middle work in a trilogy of operatic portraits, sandwiched between "Clintons on the Beach" and "Iraq Unending." The libretto is drawn from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu text, and bears little direct relation to story, action or characters, all of which play out in a series of tableaus that crisscross time. There are no subtitles and no clues, only projections of sentences from the text, and a vague feeling of having been cheated on the ticket price.
The tenor Richard Crufts, who inexplicably shaved his head and lost 10 pounds for the role, plays Dubya.
"It's the story of an administration creating hideous, atonal reverberations throughout history," Mr. McDerm said.
"Dubya's ideas are bigger than life," said Mr. Gigg, a deaf mute who watched the recent rehearsal intently from the audience, occasionally glancing at the score in bewilderment. "These huge puppets reflect that."
It took months to make the puppets despite their brief stage appearance. Charlotte Moonewe, a trained aerialist who wears stilts and no panties onstage, wryly called the entrance of the giant puppets, "a suicidal leap into the gloom."
The Met fervently hopes the same cannot be said for "Dubyagraha."
Tragic Rabbit, New York Arts Review