“Bread and Puppet Theater is based on bread baking and the not-for-sale distribution of bread at moments created by art, and these moments are created in opposition to capitalist culture and habit. Therefore the puppet show is not only a puppet show, but an eating-bread-together event,” writes Peter Schumann, founder of the fiercely independent, anti-materialistic troupe, now marking its 50th year of cheap art and political theater. Bread and Puppet is the progenitor of groups like Paperhand Puppet Intervention, well-known in the Triangle area for their grand-scale puppets and their social messages.
This completely admirable, scruffy, and sweet company of players, based out of the company’s Vermont farm, rolled into Carrboro in their flower-painted bus, to appear at the ArtsCenter — also scruffy and sweet — March 1 with their show Circus of the Possibilitarians. Being the good guys, they all wear white; being few in number, they all play, sing, and do physical stunts. There were no really big puppets, as in their outdoor pageants and street plays, but there were some clever smaller ones in several of the brief skits that made up the 50-minute performance. There were also songs, music, banner waving, and some pretty swell stilt dancing. It was, as it was supposed to be, low art, with nothing slick or overly-refined about it. Its beauty lies in its heartfelt simplicity, a state of being maintained for five decades by dogged fidelity to founding principles and the continual intake of fresh youth.
For, as you may imagine, these touring troupers, who could declare their radical positions with fresh and smiling faces (no irony, no cynicism), were not the same avant-garde artists who were part of the downtown New York Living Theater and anti-war movements of the 1960s. I’m not sure any of the six was even as much as 25. It was extremely heartening.
It was not, however, particularly edifying, politically; probably the skits would have more gusto for younger viewers. They hit all the expected notes: war, in general and in particular; Big Oil; student loans; the equality of all living things. The opening skit on that topic was one of the most intriguing, as it explained how a man was like a carrot. The pieces that made gentle fun, or simply entertained, were generally more satisfying. One multi-talented company member, a robust young woman with a glowing face, appeared in a blonde wig as Hillary Clinton. She blew a few riffs on her saxophone, grinned, and said, “I play better than my husband,” before prancing off to the next thing. She also did a graceful dance while waving two large banners on long poles that was pretty much the antithesis of Hillary; in another piece she played a toy piano.
The skit that gave the show its name was most appreciated by the youngest people in the room. Holding tattered cardboard signs, two yes and two no, four players engage in a prolonged shouting match of their opposing positions. Suddenly, a puppet head pops out, high in the backdrop. “It’s God!” the shouters say. God wags his head and says, “Maybe.” All the little children crowed with delight and the actors capered about, repeating the epiphanous word and clapping each other on the back. Too bad Bread and Puppet can’t take this to the aisles of Congress.
They carried us out with spirited renditions (drums, sax, tuba, flute) of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Down by the Riverside.” No matter what your religion or lack thereof, who doesn’t want to be on the side of right? Lay down your sword and shield. Study war no more.
Then all processed to the lobby, to admire cheap art (mostly brightly-colored woodcut prints and banners with hopeful words) and take fresh bread from the hands of the artists who baked it. This is, if anything, even more radical than it was 50 years ago.