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Flash Review, 8-13: Field of Dreams and Nightmares
Bread and Puppet Plays with Politics

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus

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GLOVER, Vermont -- Just to get to the farm where the Bread and Puppet Theater has staged its annual Domestic Resurrection Circus for over 30 years is a journey. Traveling further and further north, cars thin to few and far between on the mountainous highway, even on the bright first Sunday in August.

My children have seen the Cirque de Soleil, where you pay through the nose for a seat to get high tech effects and spectacular feats. They also squealed their way through a Russian one-ring circus in Holland where you sat close enough to smell the tiger and elephants. At Bread and Puppet you can sit anywhere you like on the vast sweep of inclined field that forms a horseshoe amphitheater. There's a distinctly home-crafted feel and no one need pay any money at all. There are plenty of animals too, but here's the twist: they're all larger-than-life puppets. As we hike up to a shaded spot I am astonished by the number of critters -- grasshoppers and other flying insects -- we share the field with. So it's a hoot that as the brass band plays opening numbers ("Puttin' on the Ritz," etcetera), the first puppet entrance comes when eight or so people-sized crickets make their hoppy way down the sides of the incline toward the 'stage,' a flat, mown expanse of field bordered by two cheerfully painted school buses and a banner proclaiming "1st World Insurrection Circus" (a play on the older name, Domestic Resurrection Circus, changed to fit our current political climate?).

All the components of circus are here -- acrobats, clowns, brash and brassy music, lovely ladies and derring do. Big group dances involve precision flag fluttering, cheerleaders bouncing, action and color. Short tight scenes follow swiftly one on another. "Upside Down World," this year's circus, begins with the first of many 'upside downs,' a passel of tall folks walking on their hands (actually wearing stuffed pants upside down on their heads). They scamper, make formations and play drums, waving "legs" wildly in the air. It's delightful seeing such an obvious trick. Then instead of a lion tamer, out springs the energetic lion, taming gents and ladies in bathrobes or work clothes, assisted by a lovely pink-clad lady horse. Encouraged by cracks of the whip, the humans are made to run in little circles, stand on tubs or on one leg, scratch their heads and watch TV, all bunched together. As a finale they jump through a hoop flaming with painted-on fire that reads "Red Alert."

Do we detect a message here?

Politics weave all through this circus just as they are woven into Bread and Puppet's avowed mission. We see the little people get kicked about by corporate interests and fat cats, the little stores get trampled over by Wal-Mart as embodied by "Wally," a fat chicken with gargantuan shoes. War costs in grief and the betrayal of manipulation. The political jibes are straight out, like distilled one-liners. In the cleverest, the "Rotten Idea Theater Company" performs "The Reconstruction of Iraq." Four fat-head puppets are introduced: the taxpayer's grandchild, the current taxpayer, our vice president Dick Halliburton and Iraq. A narrator relates how the current taxpayer borrows $87 billion from his grandchild (said taxpayer taking a giant green-painted bill and thwacking the grandchild with it, knocking her down), the taxpayer gives the $87 billion to vice president Dick Halliburton (after which Halliburton knocks the taxpayer down) and the vice president gives it -- oh wait, he ends up dancing off with the dough to the tune of "Happy Birthday" as a perplexed Iraq is left empty-handed. For those of us distressed about current politics, this brief but dark play is a kind of relief, a succinct way to vent. It's simple enough that children in the audience get something. For grownups it makes fun and cuts deep. Similarly, issues like faith-based initiatives, the "Patriot Act," and George Bush's tax cuts are lampooned through the physical stunts and puppetry of the large cast, mostly a skillful cadre of white-clad volunteers. Constant behind all this, and perhaps most important of all, is the serene beauty of the farm. There are many reminders of the preciousness of ordinary life and simple living: a simple song, a broken heart, a crust of chewy bread. When four huge ravens flap wings softly, complementing a plaintive song of mourning, it is just such a reminder.

It used to be that the circus was performed just one weekend each year, drawing crowds of up to 20,000 people. Now the show goes on each Sunday throughout the summer. This is truly popular entertainment with a twist -- a long-lived people's theater that speaks to us with buffoonery and pathos, encouraging us to think about what actions we can each take to fashion a better world.

Initially perplexed by the lack of glitz here, my children really get into the spirit. Following founder Peter Schumann's star turn atop impossibly high stilts, players pass giant top hats. I calculate what it's worth to have my kids see so much invention, so much playfulness and so much committed heart. It's priceless.

The circus plays every Sunday at 2 p.m. through the end of August . For more information, go to www.breadandpuppet.org.

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