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stage review

Bread and Puppet’s playful guise

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — More than 400 people gathered on blankets and beach chairs at Magazine Beach park Sunday afternoon for the “Nothing Is Not Ready Circus” presented by Bread and Puppet Theater. In the midst of this simple setting, a panoply of circus acts emerged from above, behind, and sometimes underneath the brightly painted Bread and Puppet school bus parked on the grass. The artistry of the company’s founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann, was on full display as a succession of turkeys, tigers, caribou, bison, cows, and even an elephant pranced about, all convincingly crafted from paper mache, burlap, and bits of cloth.

Of course, this is Bread and Puppet Theater, so these circus acts offered potent political commentary on current events, from the death tolls in Gaza and Iraq to the construction of a gas pipeline and the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby contraception case. The circus format, in fact, allows Schumann to walk the line between danger and delight, softening the sharpest edges of his political satire without blunting their impact. While the children in the audience squealed with delight as performers waved a long flag, or tea-drinking ladies shied away from a herd of bison, adults caught the menace of the stilt walkers, who performed a haunting dance before destroying the herd of caribou, or the dragon who scampers happily about before swallowing his unsuspecting prey.

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Schumann’s subversive message of the need to resist becomes abundantly clear, first when he offers a short history lesson on the meaning of the word “boycott,” complete with a giant puppet of namesake Captain Charles Boycott, and then in a hilarious tiger-taming circus routine in which the seemingly complacent tigers finally turn the tables on their zany trainer.

At least a dozen Bread and Puppet performers shifted back and forth between participating in the costumed antics and performing with the impressive 14-piece orchestra. The wonderfully brassy band included four trombones, two tubas, and two saxophones, as well as an accordion, two violins, and a wide range of percussion instruments. The band created just the right atmosphere for the fast-paced series of circus acts, allowing for the mood to shift easily from silly to somber and back again.

One of the most haunting routines offered advice on how to react when a police officer approaches. While the two performers acted out a humorous scene in which the cautionary instructions were the same as those for when a person is approached by a bear, they are performed in the shadow of a banner with the names of unarmed victims — mostly young and black — who have been killed by the police.

“The Nothing Is Not Ready Circus” finds double meaning everywhere — from the circus-style approach of our political process to the reminder that animals of every stripe are a part of our world. Bread and Puppet’s messages are never subtle, but this circus show successfully blends straightforward, appealing entertainment with thought-provoking political commentary.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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