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Theater troupe serves up political satire

For half her life Lydia Stein '09, a 30-year-old Resumed Undergraduate Education student, has called Bread and Puppet - a radical, political art and theater community - her "family." This week she was able to share that family with Brown and the Providence community when she coordinated and performed in Bread and Puppet's Sourdough Philosophy Circus on the Main Green.

A large crowd gathered to watch the show, full of Bread and Puppet's distinctive style of masks, costumes, political satire, singing and stilts.

"I figure that Bread and Puppet would be very well received at Brown because my sense of Brown students is that they are really bright, really motivated to do good work, to make life better for a lot of people and make the world a better place," Stein said.

Created in the early 1960s by Peter Schumann in New York City, Bread and Puppet aimed to use art as political expression and protest. Using puppets as big as 15 feet tall, the group performed on streets and in parks with the message that art should be cheap and accessible to everyone. In 1970 Bread and Puppet relocated to a farm in Glover, Vermont, where they performed an annual show called Our Domestic Resurrection Circus for up to 60,000 people. The group has since scaled back its events, doing smaller weekly shows in the summer and traveling around New England during the rest of the year. During its visit to Rhode Island last week, Bread and Puppet performed six different shows, including a Wednesday performance in Sayles Hall, and made appearances at various Providence locations over the weekend.

The show on the Main Green began with a buoyant, folksy song played by a band dressed in white chef hats and black handlebar mustaches made of paper. An exuberant group of performers ran out from behind one of Bread and Puppet's signature painted school buses wearing the troupe's customary all-white outfits. The show featured members of the Bread and Puppet company as well as volunteers from Brown and the community.

Ben Lichtner '12 was one of the volunteers. He said he worked with the company for a couple hours that morning in order to appear in the show.

"Getting ready was a lot of fun," said Lichtner, who had heard about the opportunity from a poster. "I think the show especially appealed to a place like Brown because of the political twists."

Like many circuses, the Sourdough Philosophy Circus was composed of a series of acts. The bits ranged from poignant political protest to purely silly antics, all of which left the large audience laughing and clapping for the entire show.

The first skit featured the "Official Federal Cookbook," constructed of large pieces of cardboard painted black and white with childlike words and pictures. The "book" included illustrations reading "Illegal Alien Mashed Potatoes" and "Freedom Pie."

"The Democracy Appetizer" earned laughs for being "served before a four-year fast," as one performer exclaimed.

This simplistic and vibrant style of art is what draws many to the theatrical performances.

"It's not just the work they do but the way they revolutionized the way to make art," Stein said, adding that immediately after seeing Bread and Puppet at age 15 she wanted to become involved. "When I first saw them, I realized they used really cheap materials and they were training lots and lots of people of any age to perform ... they were still making really beautiful theater and art."

As one actor read the "cookbook," other troupe members stood to the side yelling, chanting, dancing, jumping around and giving the deceptively serious content a more lighthearted and fun feel. This multi-level humor is one reason the audiences at most Bread and Puppet events span all ages.

"The kids enjoyed it even if they probably didn't understand it," said Sheryl Kopel from Pawtucket, who brought her two children to the performance. "The show was great because it could engage kids with the silliness and the costumes, and the political satire kept the adults engaged. I thought it was appropriately heavy and enjoyed the whole thing."

Other skits included a dance done on stilts, the "Vermont Secessionist Sheep Choir," and the "Read Between the Lines Zebra," who jumped rope with the help of his two trainers, Phony and Baloney. The Dancing Bear Sisters attempted to solve the economic crisis with toilet plungers, an actress in a papier mache-and-cardboard mask performed a "media spin dance" to the accompaniment of rustling newspapers and, in one of the funniest scenes, the actors did Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance as zombies.

Most of the scenes had political undertones that generally expressed frustration with the current administration's policy decisions.

Some of the acts were particularly chilling. In one recurring skit, actors announced how much money had been spent on the war in Iraq since the show started - by the end, $12,348,101.22, according to the troupe's estimate. In the finale, they displayed a large sheet of cardboard on which they had painted the number of Iraqi citizens killed in the war.

This mix of art and activism is one of the main reasons Stein has been involved in Bread and Puppet for so long and why she felt the performance would be beneficial for Brown students.

"I'm hoping Bread and Puppet gives Brown students another way of thinking about doing good work in the world," Stein explained. "Not necessarily through NGOs, studying economics or public policy. That all plays a big role, but it's inspiring to me to think that you can reach people without (needing) a lot of money."


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