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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
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
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.
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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