The Politics of Puppets: Puppet Posse and Bread & Puppet Theater provide sharp commentary with soft puppets

Puppets can be pretty impressive: they can arch towards the ceiling and distort proportions, or glower and dazzle, astounding the eye. Puppets can also be great entertainment–who didn’t love watching “Sesame Street” as a little kid? Last winter, a new student organization was founded at the UofC with the express goal of using puppets to create a community and foster social change. It seems simple–puppets are great in the same way that a Brecht play can be great. By showing the puppeteer working a slightly whimsical creation (last year’s large Puppet Posse show featured Oprah, Mothra and Godizilla, as well as the Dan Ryan Expressway as a symbol of racism), the Puppet Posse helps expose the casual workings of the world. Puppet Posse also works with students from Hyde Park Academy, so most of their work is student-written or inspired.

This week at the Experimental Station, Puppet Posse brings one of the oldest self-sustaining theatre companies to perform a circus. Called Bread and Puppet, the theatre specializes in—you guessed it–puppetry. More to a point, Bread and Puppet is a proponent of what they call the Cheap Art philosophy. Art becomes “political whether you like it or not”, and thus Bread and Puppet advocates making art out of everything, to bring art to everyone. They rebel against art as corporation, and teach workshops with instruction on
“1) how to launch precision attacks on war and capitalist megalomania
2) how to get the quickest, cheapest response to horrifically expensive dilemmas
3) how to make cardboard politicians, picture stories (cantastoria), hand puppets, and giants for rallies, parades, etc.”

The Bread and Puppet Theater, based in Vermont, is lugging itself (and its puppets) on a giant tour through the U.S., playing in cities and towns from Boston to Wisconsin. The Puppet Posse acts as their host here in Chicago, running workshops with the puppeteers (again, and their puppets–see the duality in the whole thing?) for a few days, until they perform their circus on Wednesday. The Everything is Fine circus features a strange (but certainly thematic) cast of characters: Pinky the Federal Emergency Elephant, dancing bears, the Rotten Idea Theatre Company, and the Axis of Beagle. The political slant of the work demands attention, but the Bread and Puppet does not usually shy away from this kind of upfront provocation.

The company is over forty years old, and their philosophy has given rise to everything from large-scale puppets at Vietnam War protests in the 70s to the more unconventional circuses. Artistic Director Peter Schumann has been called a “prodigious puppet-God”, and the Bread and Puppet Theater notoriously creates brilliant and rebellious acts of puppetry. Not everyone can do so much with paper-maché, cardboard, and cloth, but both the Puppet Posse and Bread and Puppet do their best to create figures that speak volumes without even really having their own voices.