CAMBRIDGE — It wouldn’t be summer without a visit from Bread and Puppet Theater’s family-friendly, politically tinged outdoor circus. A crowd of nearly 300 families gathered on the Cambridge Common Sunday afternoon for the “Whatforward Circus,” a nearly 60-minute cavalcade of vibrant circus animal puppet acts, delightful dances, and appearances by such performers as Fritz the Magnificent, Genghis Khan, and representatives from Pluto.
Of course, this is Bread and Puppet, for whom theater and politics is as essential a pairing as the bread and aioli they serve after every performance. In this circus, a seemingly simple dance by a trio of monster puppets with outsize heads becomes an indictment of the United Nations’s unwillingness to provide reparations for the thousands of Haitians infected with cholera by water the UN provided; or a hilarious dancercise class actually illustrates how Puerto Rico is being crushed by US colonization.
Founder and artistic director Peter Schumann once again creates vibrant and evocative clouds, waves, animals, and trees from the simplest combinations of color and papier mache. The “Whatforward Circus” represented a collection of wins and losses in Bread and Puppet’s chronicle of social justice in the United States, ranging from the murder of a Honduran activist to a shoutout in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But certainly one of the standouts was the chorus line of toilets that performed a kick line, complete with flipping toilet lids rather than top hats, to decry South Carolina’s attempt to limit transgender access to bathrooms.
The performers consist of nearly a dozen young men and women who stilt walk, tumble, play various instruments, and move easily from one vaudeville act to the next.
Although the spirit is mostly upbeat, with a little righteous anger thrown in, this year’s edition also included a haunting elegy to Michael Ratner. Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who successfully challenged the United States government’s detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay without judicial review, died in March from complications of cancer. He was memorialized with a traditional gospel song performed by an a cappella trio.
As integral to the show as the actors are the musicians in the spirited brass band that whipped through tunes as varied as an old-fashioned circus fanfare, a nod to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
In this festive circus format, Bread and Puppet raises awareness about issues of social justice in ways that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. And the bread is good, too.
Presented by Bread and Puppet Theater, Sept. 4 on Cambridge Common (repeats Sept. 5 at the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival, Lawrence, and in Somerville during the Honk Festival Oct. 9). Free.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.