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Stage Review

Bread and Puppet Theater revels in political protest and pageantry

The annual Cyclorama visit by Bread and Puppet Theater seems like the love child of Revels and Occupy Boston.

The Vermont troupe’s sixth residency at the Boston Center for the Arts, through Sunday, is a multi-generational gathering for music and dance and theater, like Revels. It is also an occasion for decrying greed and oppression in politically charged terms, like Occupy.

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Thursday night’s program featured striking theatrical rituals of hallucinatory beauty and earnest exhortations for humanity to battle the darkness in the world. There were segments that skated past the avant-garde into inscrutability. There was a rollicking brass band. And a giant, ugly, papier-mâché Uncle Sam got booted in its bared keister.

If all that sounds a lot like Sixties street theater, well, bingo.

The striking beauty comes from the giant puppets, masks and other visuals created under the direction of Peter Schumann, who founded Bread and Puppet on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1963. With his gray beard, long gray hair and striking, deeply lined faced, Schumann embodied the troupe’s history, looking on from a folding chair at the edge of the performance space and occasionally picking up his violin.

He noted that the evening’s first play, “Dead Man Rises,” was performed as part of the student occupation at Columbia University in 1968. The story was a sort of fable with roots in Noh drama, performed here with life-size puppets — cast members in oversize robes with papier-mâché faces — and both puppets and backdrops were in black and white. Dialogue was provided in creepy and sometimes inaudible whispers by other performers just outside the lights. It was simple, striking, weird . . . and low in intelligible meaning.

The second play, “The Possibilitarians,” began with brilliantly simple stagecraft, as the Sky, a huge blue puppet of papier-mâché and fabric, rose to loom over the audience. The Bread and Puppet crew and a cast of local volunteers cavorted about in an array of hilarious and/or frightening masks, and then there was a sweetly funny lesson on the key uses of hands and feet, from caressing and embracing to kicking the government’s behind.

At the end, Schumann walked onto a stage littered with the bodies from a battle of good and evil. He fiddled a scorching solo and exhorted them — or maybe us — to rise up and continue the struggle. It was a potent close to an idiosyncratic show that was absolutely worth seeing, even when mildly baffling.

Joel Brown can be reached at
jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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