I vividly remember the first time I saw Bread and Puppet Theater, at a demonstration on Wall Street in the 1960s. Gargantuan, bluish dream-phantoms rose in the air above me like Easter Island stone heads come to life. Years later, in 1984, I attended one of the Bread and Puppet theater pieces, "Josephine, the Mouse Singer," and was surprised that it wasn't simplistic political sloganeering, but a tragic tale of a woman vocalist, with eerie, mouselike, atonal music. Bread and Puppet isn't easy to pin down. Their latest show, "Faust 3," will appear at Time and Space Limited in Hudson on April 14.
Peter Schumann, a German dancer and sculptor, founded Bread and Puppet Theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1963. Eleven years later, the troupe moved to a farm in Glover, Vermont. Four puppeteers currently live on the farm, which also includes a museum and print shop. Each summer, Bread and Puppet presents a weekly circus, plus silent pageants. They also tour internationally. Throughout the years, some characters recur in the Bread and Puppet plays: Mother Earth, Uncle Fatso, The Dragon, plus garbagemen, washerwomen, slumlords, and butchers. "When a horse shows up in a Bread and Puppet show, as horses do in 'Faust 3,' that image rhymes with the horses in Bread and Puppet's work going back to the very early show 'White Horse Butcher,' based on a Russian folktale," explains Joshua Krugman, a current puppeteer.
Avant-garde art typically travels from the periphery of society to museums, university textbooks, and the collections of the rich. Bread and Puppet Theater has resisted this career arc. It still speaks for the poor and the forgotten, the puppets are still made of papier-mâché, and the puppeteers still distribute "peasant bread" during the show. Schumann, now 83, distinguishes between the "fine arts" of the high-culture establishment and the "coarse arts" of ordinary people. He is firmly on the side of the latter. "The most important material for this year is cardboard, and there's a certain pride that this thing you can find in a recycling station, or in your home, is the basic element of an aesthetic," remarks Amelia Castillo, who lives at the Glover farm. Also, the troupe continues to show up at demonstrations, including the Women's March in Washington, DC, and recent immigration protests.
Puppets were the CGI of the 12th century. Before Hollywood ever conjured up a believable ogre, a marionette in a dark room could do the trick. Puppets can also play games with scale. A normal human being seems minuscule next to a massive talking refrigerator, then giant—compared to a dancing thimble—all in the space of three minutes.
The German Romantic poet Goethe wrote the verse play "Faust" in two parts. Last year, Schumann decided it was time to add a third section, which he titled "Faust 3." Goethe's "Faust" is based on the German legend of a philosopher who sells his soul to the Devil to achieve vast worldly knowledge. The play is in two parts. Part I stuck close to the original legend, but Part II was an expansive amalgam of fantasy, erudition, and moral lesson. The Bread and Puppet version uses Faust as an emcee to introduce skits about contemporary America. Ordinary workers, like the fabled German philosopher, lack basic satisfaction, and find themselves trapped in a world without meaning. "Faust 3" asks: Will they make a "Faustian bargain," or find another way to escape their fate?
This play includes numerous levels of illusion: finger puppets, masks, flat puppets, and a construction so large it won't fit in certain venues (in which case there's a Plan B climactic puppet). Fourteen performers constitute the current Bread and Puppet troupe, doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up on roles, plus playing instruments, dancing—and at the end, handing out bread. Though the play was written last summer, before Trump was elected, it confronts the stunned desperation of working class life in America with wry humor. In this age of political absurdity, farce is a true necessity.
"Faust 3" by Bread and Puppet Theater will be performed at Time and Space Limited on April 14 at 7:30pm. (518) 822-8100; Timeandspace.org.