Politically-Saturated Puppet Show Informs, Entertains
News headlines and provocative dance transformed puppetry into powerful social commentary.
Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
Puppet shows are no longer the stuff of childhood: in its show this weekend, Bread and Puppet: Cheap Art and Political Theater turned this form of whimsical entertainment into political commentary. The crowd whispered excitedly on April 6 as the players, five women from Glover, Vt., marched into the Horn Gallery playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Once inside, they introduced themselves and prepared to deliver four separate skits from the “Republic of Cardboard.”
Susie Perkins, who has been part of Bread and Puppet off and on since 2003, said that “rather than seeing a painting on the wall, [we] make it move, make it respond.” Perkins took up a permanent role in the group four years ago. The art does move, as both puppets and backdrops flow with the separate narratives of the stories. The puppets are not typical marionettes, but composites of cardboard that the players move. Perkins called them “flatsos.” Each puppet and every set is hand-painted and stylized after abstract art, and the set and props were made almost entirely from cardboard and cloth.
The first two skits dealt with the Occupy Wall Street movement and police brutality, inspired in part by the arrest of some friends of Bread and Puppet, Perkins said. The first revolved around a headline in The New York Times, “Demand Rises as Unrest Continues.” The second, “Naked Cop and Deer,” hinted at, in a burlesque manner and through progressively slower twists of the puppet’s body, the nakedness behind the uniform.
The call for a set change was initiated by one of the players ringing a bell that hung from the ceiling.
The skits in the second half of the set dealt with issues of death and courage.
In fanciful dress, the players alternated between narrating, puppeteering and playing instruments, including the accordion, harp, ukelele and saxophone. Many of the instruments came from the basement of Bread and Puppet’s barn in Vermont, which contains an eclectic collection of instruments, including the body of an acoustic guitar with strings detached and sticking straight up.
In keeping with the name of the group, the audience enjoyed homemade bread with a spread of vegan aioli after the show. The group often makes an oven out of bricks, kneading and baking the bread right outside its performance venues.
Perkins began as a volunteer for the group. She was originally interested in acting, but came to admire Bread and Puppet because “it wasn’t about acting — you tell the story through the puppets. I really enjoyed the style. It’s extremely special in itself.”
After the performance, Bread and Puppet sold posters from its collection of “Cheap Art.” The pieces, mostly prints, ranged from 50 cents to $20. Many of them focused on phrases explored during the skits, healthy living and even art itself.
They also offered publications ranging from pamphlets to picture books.
Bread and Puppet “makes real theater of the people,” according to Perkins, who contrasted the group’s work with Broadway-style plays meant to be an escape from reality. Bread and Puppet attempts “in direct ways, to cause inner thought [and] to tell the story of the human condition in a way that’s not pretentious,” Perkins said.