When you think of Vermont exports, jam bands and ice cream tend to spring to mind — but you ought to include radical puppet theater on that list too. Founded in the early ’60s, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, based on a collective farm in Glover, Vt., is a DIY countercultural institution integrating art, music, theater, dance and puppetry into a unique and politically charged performance experience. All of its props are handmade, including the free bread they serve after each show. Yes, they are true to both nouns in their moniker.
This month, they arrive at the BCA’s Cyclorama for a residency that includes, in their words, a “respectfully truncated” version of Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland.” The show’s two prologues set up a political analogy from the get-go: The first prologue quotes WikiLeaks documentation of recent American atrocities under the “modern sky,” while the second tells the story of the Trojan War under the “antique sky.” The not-so-subtle suggestion is that our wars are no more evolved or justifiable than those of the ancients.
“It brings this old form of storytelling more into context of what’s happening today,” says troupe member Maura Gahan. “It’s not just fluffy storytelling — it’s very pertinent to what’s going on.”
Bread and Puppet’s residency at the Cyclorama also includes a family matinee show called “Decapitalization Circus,” an art exhibition by founder/leader Peter Schumann and plenty of the troupe’s trademark “cheap art.” Not to mention assistance from musical ensembles the Possibilitarians, the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band — as well as several local volunteers.
Do it yourself, stymie the critics
Most of Bread and Puppet’s performers have little formal training. Instead, they’ve taught themselves, in true DIY fashion, as they’ve gone along: “We figure things out as we make shows,” Gahan explains.
Over the course of a run, an individual performer may be a singer, a dancer, a puppeteer and whatever else is necessary. These qualities of adaptability and spontaneity have resulted in a bafflingly original performance aesthetic: “It’s difficult for people to even write about or critique our shows,” says Gahan, “because it doesn’t follow any kind of formula for an art form.”