You could hear the brass band all the way from the base of State Street. The music only got louder as one approached the UW-Madison Education Building last Wednesday night, where Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater company was performing the first of two Madison shows.
The Bread and Puppet Theater brass band was standing outside, smiling and enthusiastically playing their instruments, encouraging passersby to come in. Their show for the evening, "The Everything Is Fine Circus," was free, they said, fun for all ages, and about to start.
Formed in New York City in the 1960s, Bread and Puppet Theater has long rebelled against the academic, hierarchical and inaccessible aspects of the art world. The company made a name for itself in New York and around the country in the Vietnam War era, during which they also moved to a farm in northeast Vermont, creating a commune and theater company that still accepts annual "apprenticeships" every summer.
Their name evokes the "bread and circuses" of ancient Rome, and their performances are meant to delight the inner child -- but they are not meant to keep that kid complacent.
As much protest as puppet show, their troupe has participated in high-profile protests around the world in recent years, which is why the members sometimes are known as "puppetistas." Bread and Puppet shows are as much a call for action as they are a celebration of childlike ingenuity. As it happens, the celebration is the more entertaining part.
In the education building, the company transformed a normal college lecture hall into a DIY puppet pageant theater, with a hand-painted pastoral backdrop held up by bamboo polls, duct tape and fraying rope. The props and costumes all looked like they were pulled out of a dumpster not too long before the show, and the larger-than-life, homemade, papier-mache puppets were animated by one or several of the performers themselves.
Burlap sacks became donkeys carrying important messages and standard revolutionary quotes, as well as ridiculously amusing turkeys for the Five Turkey Symphony, and a pile of pink fabric over black metal framing literally became the elephant in the room during the "Pinky, the Federal Emergency Management Elephant" skit. Pinky was there to tell us that, of course, everything was fine.
The lecture hall was nearly filled to capacity, and all eagerly watched the small stage. The brass band made frantic oompah-loompahs out of the handful of young kids running around. The skits were anchored as much in dance and music as puppetry, and the show was at its best when it was most subtle.
Or, perhaps, when the cows were being marched out, to do a cow-dance and raise awareness about changing local agricultural laws. Their large bodies required the organized dance steps of two performers, and the large heads provided for the skillful hand of a performer to sneak out, covered in a red sock, and "lick" those audience members sitting by the aisles. The alarmingly life-like cow tongue was uncomfortably hilarious, indeed, for young and old alike.
Images from the Bread and Puppet "Everything is Fine Circus" show at the UW-Madison Education Building can be viewed in this photo gallery shot by Angela Richardson. She also published a gallery featuring the troupe's "How to Turn Distress into Sucess" show at the Barrymore, as well as a gallery featuring the Bread & Puppet workshop on cantastoria at the WilMar Center.