Bread and Puppet: Question authority! Love life!!
Ladyslippers and grasshoppers! Bugs and gorillas! Welcome to Bread and Puppet’s “Nothing is Not Ready Circus!”
For anyone who’s never experienced Bread & Puppet’s special blend of political theater and circus, puppetry and music and intense drama, it’s nearly as hard to convey as trying describe to those who weren’t yet born in the ’60s — with all its youthful, rebellious, creative energy and confrontational politics.
But Bread & Puppet, which grew out of that larger-than-life decade, is alive and well. And it’s very much a ritual for generations of attendees of its annual circus and pageant, set on a 130-acre former dairy farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. For those of us who’ve traveled three hours northward for decades to this family event that relies on the magic of the mountains and the enormous talents of volunteer artists and musicians, it’s a summertime event not to be missed.
And yet it’s not for everyone. You must be able to get past its progressive, didactic politics and the sheer informality of a rain-or-shine event that takes place in a natural, grasshopper-laden amphitheater where a dog might grab your picnic.
This year’s circus — which repeats every Sunday through Aug. 24 — begins with two brief “ding-dong” sideshows. One is titled “Weasel vs. the World,” in which a blue weasel’s quiet world is invaded by a natural gas pipeline. The weasel goes on to help an inquiring salmon dismantle a “decrepit” dam that’s interfering with spawning. This hilarious puppet show is contrasted by a second, intensely serious memorial to Eric Garner, who died recently in New York, the victim of a police choke hold.
It’s the same contrast between acts in the circus, in which the only elephants or other wild animals are those with human legs and in which many of the acrobats appear to be under the age of 12. Yet any understatement’s more than made up for by the exuberance of participants who open and close each circus running with colorful banners extolling life’s simple pleasures, such as “Sister Garden” and “Brother Toothbrush.”
This year’s “Nothing is Not Ready” circus, like last year’s “This and That” circus, satirizes and lambastes the technological, the bureaucratic and certainly the autocratic, and hails grassroots, populist, ecological and traditional values, especially those who fight oppression at all levels.
So it ‘s no surprise that this year’s circus includes an act with masked agents in identical suits holding a large metal sign reading “border” and four masked women Latin American mothers dancing with their infants, only to be attacked by a dragon labeled “the situation.”
There’s also a pair of Supreme Court skits, one ridiculing the decision that since corporations are considered people, their religious views need to be protected, and the other declaring, in the words of circus performers, “Anyone entering a women’s health clinic has the right to be bombarded by someone opposing their entrance into said health clinic.”
Only at Bread and Puppet could there be a dance of chairs against the death penalty, a dance of “Siberian performing rhinoceri,” or a performance in homage to caribou herds felt to be threatened by a proposed natural-gas pipeline across northern Canada.
A central character in a key circus act is Capt. Charles Boycott, a British land agent who was ostracized in the late 1800s by local community members who removed their labor from the estate of his employer, Lord Erne, and isolating Boycott by refusing to serve him in any way, which gave rise to the verb “to boycott,” a term that was a part of a running commentary throughout the circus.
Among the “boycott” targets of this year’s circus is Walmart’s plans to build a “superstore” in the border town of Derby and the expansion of Dollar General stores to include “every town in Vermont.”
(Snidely Whiplash mega-puppet, enter stage right .... )
And then there’s the “Rotten Idea Theater Co.” within the circus, in which Monsanto, the auto industry, the ozone layer and even the N.Y. Mets were represented, along with “the Delicate Balance of the Ecosystem that Sustains All Life on Earth,” which exited with the quip, “I’m out of here ...”
This year’s circus, some have said, seems a bit darker than others. Maybe that’s because much of the news has seemed bleaker; “The Policies that Continue War on Iraq” were part of the boycott, as was the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
But at such dark moments, though, a half-dozen kids on stilts may come out, with the circus band playing a rousing Dixieland number, to tell is that we’re being way too literal here. This is art.
And 80-year-old Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann — who only last year stopped his ritual ending of the circus on 10-foot stilts dancing in Uncle Sam pants while blasting a pair of trumpets — would probably insist that it’s “cheap art.” It’s that kind of volksart that’s at the root of B&P’s broadside posters, wide-open performances and widespread use of creatively adapted found props, costumes and even musical instruments.
Schumann began creating puppet shows at home in the 1930s in Germany and came to New York in 1961 with his wife, Elka, and became involved in experimental theater and dance troupes there. When they moved to Glover in 1974 to the farm that was then owned by Elka’s father, John Nearing, the son of legendary simple-living advocates Scott and Helen Nearing, they began touring the country and the world with original political street-theater productions and other theater pieces.
Bread and Puppet also launched an annual circus in Glover each August, the popularity of which grew exponentially and attracted thousands of visitors by the 1990s. The crowds grew so large and unruly — some people ignored the taboo against drugs and alcohol — that they were ended after a 1998 pushing incident ended in one man’s death when he hit his head on a stone, said Elka during a recent museum tour.
After a brief hiatus, the grand, annual circus was scaled back to a smaller weekly circus, with much more manageable crowds.
As noticeable as the smaller crowds is this year’s launch of a sustainability fund as B&P begins looking to its legacy after the Schumanns retire. With a $150,000 goal set for this year, the requests for donations have been more pronounced than before. Past efforts to raise money have been as low-key as the tiniest of all the puppets in Glover.
Part of B&P’s annual spectacle has traditionally involved a pageant held after each circus, incorporating the landscape and giant puppets in a largely wordless yet music-accented performance. The only near-constant in these pageants is the triumph of good over evil, or at least the primacy of memory and legacy over business-as-usual.
This year’s pageant, dubbed the “ Gaza Emergency Performance,” revealed no real white knight coming to the rescue, but ended with enormous white fabric birds flying high across the fields to the strains of violin chords in the distance after an abstract attack left black-robed victims in the open field, hands raised in the air, amid signs: “What Else?” “How Much Longer?” “Whose Money?”
Unlike pageants in years past, which began in early evening and ended with demons burning in a massive fire as the moon was rising and the stars began to shine in the vast sky, this late afternoon pageant precedes a ritual Hiroshima memorial ceremony beside a permanent Hiroshima cemetery.
Yet another tradition is Schumann himself dutifully on hand at the wooden Bread Hut to slice and serve loaves of sourdough bread, freshly baked in an outdoor stone oven, topped with a potent homemade aioli for kids, their parents and old-timers alike lined up for slices.
At Bread & Puppet, it’s all about the magic of ritual.
Bread and Puppet is located at 753 Heights Road, Glover, Vt., which is an estimated 21/2-hour drive 166 miles north on Interstate 91. The “Nothing is Not Ready Circus and Pageant” runs Sundays, through Aug. 24. A slide show starts at 2 p.m. and the performance follows at 3 p.m. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, June 1 to Nov. 1. It is also open before and after the evening performances. There is a museum tour every Sunday at 1 p.m. during July and August. During the cold months, the museum officially closed, but may be opened by appointment or chance. Admission is free; donations are welcome. 802-525-3031, breadandpuppet.org.
Video link: http://tinyurl.com/ljnfpdm
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Staff photographer Micky Bedell started at The Recorder in 2014. She can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 273.