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In Bread And Puppet’s Circus, Tigers Are Cardboard And The Clowning Is Political

Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)
Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)
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Two things set Bread and Puppet Theater’s circus apart from most other circuses.

The first difference is that while the Vermont troupe’s new, family friendly “The Overtakelessness Circus”—to be performed for free (“pass-the-hat donations welcome”) at Magazine Beach Park, 719 Memorial Dr., Cambridge, at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6, and at the annual Bread & Roses Heritage Festival on the Common in the city of Lawrence at 4:20 p.m. Monday, Sept. 7—is filled with dancing horses and snarling tigers and a pink elephant who has been known to spray water from its trunk, these are “animal acts that don’t involve any [live] animals,” explains Joseph Gresser. They’re giant papier-mâché masks and costumes performed by fleet-footed puppeteers.

The second difference is that the bouncing acrobatics and the slapstick clowns, the elegant dancers and the galloping (live) New Orleans style brass band are marshaled to speak about the troubles of the world and utopian dreams. “In general,” Gresser says, “Bread and Puppet is not satisfied with the status quo.”

Oh, there’s one more difference in this year’s circus: Some of the acts are inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The circus’ title comes from one of the 19th century Amherst poet’s ruminations on death.

“We have a message that we want to share with people and it’s easier to do that if you make it inviting,” Gresser says. “And the circus is inviting.”

Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)
Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

Gresser has long performed with Bread and Puppet. Mainly these days, he plays alto sax in the band when they’re doing their thing at or near the troupe’s home base on a farm nestled in a mountain valley in Glover, Vermont.

Bread and Puppet is one of the legendary experimental theaters that came to the fore in New York in the 1960s. It was founded in 1963 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by Peter Schumann, a German-born artist and dancer, who moved to the States inspired by the avant-garde composer John Cage, and took to the streets and loft performance halls with giant, expressionist masks and puppets. After shows, he’d serve his home-baked bread. Before long, his troupe’s giant puppets became iconic participants in anti-Vietnam War protests in New York and Washington, D.C.

In 1970, the group moved to northern Vermont, where they developed annual circuses and pageants that attracted crowds of tens of thousands. They still perform circuses and pageants at their Glover headquarters each weekend in July and August—then tour the rest of the year. Schumann still directs and performs—and bakes the bread—though at age 81, he tends to tour less, usually only leaving Vermont for the company’s annual winter runs in New York and Boston.

Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)
Bread and Puppet Theater's “The Overtakelessness Circus” as performed in Glover, Vermont, on Aug. 23. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

The circus they developed this summer in outdoor performances for thousands watching from a grassy hillside amphitheater speaks about marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, international economic treaties, rights to shrinking water supplies in California and (directly quoting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren) government funding for women’s health care via Planned Parenthood. The show is a mix of satire and clowning and artful dancing.

What Schumann long ago realized, Gresser says, is that in a circus “you can knit something together that will be engaging and that will still have enough meat to it that when people go home they’ll have something to think about. At the same time, it’s beautiful, and it’s funny, and sometimes it’s just breathtaking.”

Greg Cook is co-founder of WBUR's ARTery. Follow him on Twitter @AestheticResear or on the Facebook.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.

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