February 28, 2002

Political Pageantry

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With the recent resurrection of Historic Ithaca’s State Theatre, our fine city is once again attracting renowned theatre companies to the area. Coming in a month, on March 28, is the Bread and Puppet Theater, who will be presenting a Public Participation Uprising: The Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for A Rotten Idea.

This is hardly Bread and Puppet’s first time in Ithaca; in fact, the pair’s history goes all the way back to 1968 when Bread and Puppet performed in Barton Hall as part of an anti-war rally. The story goes that Father Daniel Berrigan escaped FBI capture by addressing the crowd while masquerading as one of Bread and Puppet’s paper mache figurines. Since then, many Ithacans have been involved, in one way or another, with Bread and Puppet and are thrilled to welcome the return of the company.

For those of us who have never heard of Bread and Puppet, this theatre company was founded in 1963 on New York City’s Lower East Side by Peter Schumann. Since then, the company has moved around extensively, touring the United States, Europe, and Latin America. The performances are geared towards children and adults alike and are staged through different mediums such as street fairs, circuses, and traditional theaters. As director, Schumann has always produced shows that conveyed very definite political and religious themes through satirical plots and giant paper mache puppets.

Since its creation, Bread and Puppet has centered most of their performances on protesting war, beginning with the Vietnam War in the 60s, moving on to US involvement with Central America in the 80s, and recently, they’ve tackled environmental and conservation issues along with the current war in Afghanistan.

Taking its name literally, one can see that there are two components that make up Bread and Puppet. Baked by Schumann and volunteers, the actual bread of Bread and Puppet represents the material simplicity that Schumann so highly values as evidenced by the ordinary materials with which he uses to construct the other half of the moniker, his magnificent puppets. Coarse sourdough bread is handed out after most performances by actors to members of the audience in an attempt to extend the feeling of community. Perhaps this relates to the holy rite of communion during Christian religious services, or perhaps Bread and Puppet believes that its audience members should be an integral part of the performance instead of peripheral bystanders. By literally breaking bread with his audience, Schumann wants them to take home the message that he is not doing this for profit, but rather because he wants to share a part of himself and his ideas with them.

Moving on to the second part, the puppets of Bread and Puppet are truly pieces of art no matter how you look at them. Constructed with inexpensive materials, they are nevertheless extravagant creations that have profound effects on those who look at them. What began as a few figures who marched in anti-Vietnam parades sponsored by Schumann himself have now blossomed into hundreds of unique figurines that are viewed internationally. Especially remarkable is the fact that, while the faces are not realistically human, the emotions they exhibit are unmistakably familiar and eerily striking.

Together, the bread and puppets of Schumann serve to convey his message to his viewers. While the productions are undeniably strange, the “strangeness” does not dilute the strength of the plays. Somehow the avant-garde nature is a fundamental part of the art form that Schumann has managed to create, and it obviously works since his company has blossomed exponentially in the almost forty years of its history. Bread and Puppet productions are bold with the intention of making their viewers think and become personally involved with the ideas brought up by the performance.

They have never been afraid of openly presenting controversial topics through the actions of giant puppets, and their newest creation is no exception. In a time when an overwhelming majority of our country’s population supports our nation’s militaristic actions, The Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for A Rotten Idea unapologetically bashes America’s post-September 11th reactions. Self-described as a “non-religious service in the presence of paper mache gods,” this Public Participation Uprising protests the killing of innocent Afghanistan citizens as a result of America’s Response.

The production will be carried out in Ten Movements that are hard to describe unless you experience them personally. In the middle of this, Schumann will perform his famous fiddle sermon, a kind of musical monologue. Following the performance, Schumann will hand out his traditional sourdough bread with matzah substitutes since March 28th is also Passover. Be prepared to sing along with the hymns and be otherwise involved throughout the entire evening.

If you are a longtime fan or just searching for new experiences, tickets can be purchased at several locations: The ticket center at the Clinton House, Autumn Leaves Used Books, See Spot Gallery, and Greenstar Coop, Willard Straight Hall, and Ithaca College. It is the policy of Bread and Puppet that they do not make profits on their performances so the proceeds will all benefit the Ithaca Community Radio Working Group. Given Bread and Puppet’s history, we expect this show to be utterly bizarre, yet at the same time emotionally powerful and artistically amazing.

Playing A Part:

The Bread & Puppet Theatre is currently searching for the final 10 community volunteers who wish to take part in their upcoming Ithaca performance. In all, 30 area volunteers will be a part of the show.

Ticket Information:

Tickets for the show are $10 each and are available at the ticket center in the Clinton House, Autumn Leaves Bookstore, and the See Spot Gallery, Greenstar Cooperative Market.

This performance deals with difficult subject matter and may not be suitable for younger children.

Archived article by Yiwei Wang