The actors of the Bread and Puppet Theater normally burst into the playing space, sprinting around in all-white, flying flags high above their heads as the band blasts horns and bangs on drums. The ensemble is politically active, frenetic and high energy; as a company, it has been making puppets, devising theatre, attending protests and sustaining itself on a commune-style farm in Vermont for over 50 years. Those within driving distance of the group’s home base are lucky enough to see this company on a regular basis as the actors load up their flowery-painted school bus, puppets and props to take to the open road, performing in parks, churches, schools, protests and anywhere else where it can fit.
For many, Bread and Puppet’s most recent production at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, “Captain Boycott,” revealed a new approach to the company’s radical theatre modus operandi. Instead of presenting its typical loud, circus-like outdoor performances, Bread and Puppet had the opportunity to examine a more subtle and nuanced performance style, driving home its political message in a way that didn’t involve massive puppets, huge dances and small scenes that cater to short attention spans. While disjointed, as fans of Bread and Puppet know its performances to be, this production was a radical, intriguing departure for the troupe, reaching new heights at times and falling into new lows at others.
The Cyclorama, a round, squat, brick building on Tremont Street in downtown Boston — with seating for audiences between 100 people and 875 people — provided an intimate space for the show while also allowing the performers to keep the audience mobile. The play, split into three parts, involved shepherding the crowd around the Cyclorama. The brick walls themselves were covered in enormous canvases – beautiful, often abstracted protest paintings. These domineering paintings created a stark sense of confinement, a vacuum out of which the performance sprang, demanding political consciousness and action from the viewers. True to its style, the company offered homemade bread and garlic aioli to the audience at the end of the play.
As in most of its productions, “Captain Boycott” opened with the Bread and Puppet marching band. Rather than playing its typical HONK-style sing-alongs, the band became the “Boycott Orchestra,” banging out an undirected cacophony, somewhere between complete amateurism and utter anarchy. The result, especially when taken alongside other moments of meaninglessness and unexplainable violence, created a sense of chaos.
Particularly stunning was the opening image and movement: a solo dance. A lone actress, wrapped in a flowing white sheet moved slowly toward the audience, illuminated by a single spotlight and accompanied by a single percussionist, picking up and throwing down sticks that resonated on different pitches. These same concepts were extended throughout the piece: stark lighting from a singular source and subtle, imaginative music. Ultimately, Bread and Puppet did a remarkable job exploring the concepts of stillness and movement physically, politically and socially. Stillness, a rarity in the company’s performances, was a welcome new tactic that allowed for strong images, powerful statements and beautiful silence.
What did not come through in this performance was any sense of cohesion. “Captain Boycott” was a work in three parts, each completely unrelated to the next. Further, there were a number of serious, moving motifs that were introduced and then completely left to fall by the wayside (in particular: references to the Greek tragedy Antigone, Brechtian character labels and the beautiful satire of the conflicting views of Verticalism and Horizontalism in the production). This is not strange for Bread and Puppet; indeed, the troupe often presents active plays full of disjointed scenes and episodes that are unrelated to the work as a whole. This disjointed method, however, reads well only in an outdoor setting, where the players must vie for audience attention against weather, traffic, dogs and families. In an indoor space with few distractions and an attentive audience, this detached storytelling leads to confusion and a lack of subtly and coherence, in contrast with the company’s attempts at nuance in other aspects of the production.
Despite certain fallbacks, this troupe was still able to craft an engaging performance that successfully conveyed the themes and messages it is known and loved for. Of course, Bread and Puppet artists are unafraid to work political themes into their work, Bread and Puppet as a theater troupe receives no corporate or government funding. “Captain Boycott” was no exception to this tradition of politically charged content. Multiple references were made to Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two recent victims of police violence; the troupe also referenced the rising up of the 99 percent and promoted a message of peace for all war-ravaged communities around the globe. The heroes (and the audience members) were encouraged to boycott companies, people and the governments that oppress them. Combining their trademark political commentary and their innovative use of elements of production, Bread and Puppet Theater succeeded by exploring both the chaos and the stillness of a complex and multifaceted topic.