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Puppet Masters

After a band of homeland security specialists checked out the scene, a line of high-level Bush administration officials emerged and stood before me. Among them were: Vice-President-Select Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Rice, Secretary of State Powell, homeland security honcho Ridge and the ever-popular terrorist hunter, Attorney General Ashcroft. I watched as they approached a docile herd of sheep, divvied them up and then transformed each of the four-legged grazers into soldiers ready to be ordered into battle. I wondered how many sheep it would take to fight a war as I sat there in an old gravel pit surrounded by the late-summer dark greens of the forested rolling mountains in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

George W. also made an appearance, following additional security orchestrations by the homeland security staff. He demonstrated a simple system for beating an economic recession. With three assistants who represented the American electorate, the stock market and Iraq, the president-select demonstrated the dynamics of his plan. As the stock market went down, the electorate would get upset, and this, in turn, would lead George W. to whack Iraq. The electorate would feel some short-lived relief, but soon would become upset further about the stock market, which in turn would earn another whack for Iraq. Soon this cycle was moving so fast that neither George W. nor his assistants could keep the system in order. Homeland security kept close watch on the action.

The band of homeland security workers was just that—a band. With drums beating, cymbals crashing, brass instruments blaring and a mutated tuba laying down a bass line, the small squad of men and women marched in formation to the theme song of Bonanza, the ’60s TV hit series. The band members were attired in dark sunglasses, white shirts with “Homeland Security Band” scrawled in red on the back, and black pants. They marched in formation under the direction of a whistle-blowing commander.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, these events were not an official function of George W.’s administration. They were part of the What Is to Be Done? Circus of the Bread & Puppet Theatre. All this action was taking place in the fields of the troupe’s farm just south of the Canadian border, near the tiny town of Glover, Vt.

More than a dozen puppet acts filled the circus show. Along the way, a string of salient political messages were released, molded from facts, humor, trash and a lot of papier-mâché. The action in the circus ring was accompanied by a large brass band that set tempos and beats, and added an occasional timely sound effect. An audience of several hundred looked on as the white-clad musicians and their clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tuba, electric bass, accordion, cymbals and drums cued each act. All of this proceeded under the watchful eye and direction of gray-bearded Peter Schumann, who’s been making recycled trash stand up against war and injustice for more than 40 years.

Bread & Puppet’s roots twist back to the early 1960s in the Lower East Side of New York City, where Schumann started “street spectacles,” enlisting puppets to support rent strikes and protest against the Vietnam War. Schumann’s politics have always veered to the left, but with a vibrant mix of pageantry and humor. For Schumann, puppets have always been at the vanguard of the revolution (cymbal crash!).

In the 1970s, the troupe headed out of NYC and found refuge on an old dairy farm in Vermont. The farm became a space for performing shows, constructing huge puppets, and training puppeteers.

The puppets created by Schumann and his ever-changing band of renegade puppeteers bear little resemblance to the puppets most Americans have been exposed to while growing up. For B&P, puppets are for everyone, not just kids. Their puppets range in size from inches to more than 30 feet tall. Many come in the form of humans hidden behind masks and wrapped in material. Some of the largest puppets are operated by long poles controlled by coordinated teams of puppeteers.

In one act this summer, a 20-foot-tall puppet dressed in a business suit and hat moved with the assistance of six puppeteers. Four puppeteers each controlled a hand or foot, and one held the body aloft, as the white-skinned giant ate a dinner of weapons of mass destruction. The sixth puppeteer provided the giant’s voice via a combination of trombone and spoken words.

Until 1998, B&P produced a massive annual two-day extravaganza called Our Domestic Resurrection Circus. The event grew each year to where it eventually attracted more than 50,000 people. Huge campgrounds rose from the fields of nearby farmers; eventually these also included a vender’s zone and performance stages with portable electric generators. B&P faced a problem rarely experienced by theater companies: Too many people were showing up for shows.

When a late-night fight in one of the camps resulted in a stabbing death in 1998, Peter Schumann blew the whistle on the massive annual gathering. To replace it, Bread & Puppet launched a summer series of weekly performances. On Sunday afternoons in July and August, the troupe performs short “side shows,” followed by a circus and then a “pageant” that takes place on the farm’s rolling hills. Audience sizes now range in the hundreds instead of thousands. In lieu of admission charges, donations are collected in large painted cardboard top hats as you enter.

The Bread & Puppet farm and museum are on Route 122, off the Barton exit on I-91 in Vermont. To find out about future events, call (802) 525-3031.

—Tom Nattell


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