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A Tradition of Subversion

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Bread & Puppet perform the “Everything is Fine Circus” at TSL in Hudson, March 9 through 18.
  • Bread & Puppet perform the “Everything is Fine Circus” at TSL in Hudson, March 9 through 18.
The most subversive entertainments on television these days are, oddly, the animated “American Dad” and “The Simpsons.” Despite a growing conservatism in media stemming from corporate ownership, these non-human depictions elude the censor and gleefully puncture the hypocrisies of modern life.

These cartoon agitators have an ally in Vermont’s radical performance group, the Bread and Puppet Theater. Since 1963, the troupe’s giant papier-mâché figures have been a mainstay at street protests and in progressive theaters, excoriating the creators of war, pollution, and corruption. Bread and Puppet will visit TSL in Hudson this month for six performances of its new work, “The Everything is Fine Circus.”

Expect a world beyond Ringling Brothers, said Linda Elbow, B&P’s company touring manager and business manager, and a company veteran since 1975. This circus is equal parts three-ring acts, slapstick, and in-your-face sociopolitical sloganeering. Witness the subversive menagerie: a donkey wrapped in the Declaration of Independence, Pinky the FEMA Elephant (a swipe at Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina), dancing bears in nuclear war garb, and a chorus line of tap-dancing telephones. (Tapping phones—get it?) “This circus is not only for children,” she said.

Ever the bloodied but unbowed counterculture idealist, Elbow speaks from the group’s headquarters in Glover, Vermont. She is in a prickly mood; she has been watching the evening news.

“One thing that irritates me is that I read criticism of our work that says Bread and Puppet is very 1960s,” she said. “It’s still the ’60s,” she said, rattling off the crises from tonight’s newscast. “What, there’s nothing to protest anymore?”

Founded by Peter Schumann in 1963, B&P gained a national reputation when author and leftist goddess Grace Paley had the group enliven street protests against the Vietnam War. B&P was soon traveling the world, exhorting people to rebel against false leaders and false ideas. After one performance in Communist Poland, Elbow recalled, people surrounded the company, weeping with gratitude and forcing jewelry into their hands.

In an era of government- or corporate-subsidized—and putatively neutered—art, Bread and Puppet hews to its no-frills philosophy. The resident company remains a quintet. Materials come from local dumpsters or factory discards. There is pragmatism behind such austerity. “We do not have a huge company because we can’t afford to support one,” Elbow said, “and we don’t want to be able to support one because we don’t want to spend our time writing grants.”

After four decades, Schumann still oversees the company. At the annual meeting in January, he opens his notebook and announces the themes for the new year’s production. But little is set in stone, Elbow said. When summer construction begins, the laid-back paterfamilias has often changed the themes—or, just as likely, lost his notebook.

Bread and Puppet performs "The Everything is Fine Circus” at TSL in Hudson at Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, March 9-18. Shows are at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays. (518) 822-8448; www.timeandspace.org.

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