Bread and Puppet from headier, more creative days.

Good agit-prop theater is clever, thought-provoking, and confrontational. For many decades, Bread and Puppet Theater was the gold standard by which political street theater was judged. Peter Schumann’s giant papier-mâché assemblages began whipping up opposition to American adventurism back in 1962, before there was a significant peace movement. When Schumann moved his operation from New York City to Glover, Vermont, in 1970, that tiny northeastern village became a progressive epicenter. We recall attending several of B & P’s Domestic Resurrection Circuses in the 1980s and reveling in their tight scripts and well-orchestrated pageants that were unabashed celebrations of countercultural values and devastating critiques of American excess and hubris. By then, no protest anywhere was complete without an imported flotilla of Schumann’s towering puppets leading the good fight.

That was then; this is now. It pains us to say that the 2009 version of Bread and Puppet is a wreck, not Berthold Brecht. Let’s not mince words: the troupe’s September 18 visit to Amherst was one of the most excruciatingly awful performances we have ever witnessed. Seven young performers cavorted about stage with amateurish, aimless, humorless, and witless artifice that would have shamed a junior high school production.

The evening began with an off-key brass band procession onto the stage, where actors clad in Salvation Army cast-offs mugged their way through a 1930s-meets-the-1970s cabaret routine in which histrionic gestures, strike-a-pose smugness, and stop/start instrumentals gave way to cacophony. Sound dreadful? It was the first half highlight.

This was followed by three “plays”—their label, not our judgment—in which crudely executed paper cutouts were manipulated behind a flimsy cardboard frame. B & P brags of producing “cheap art,” but these forays into Popsicle-stick puppetry fell beneath even that low standard. The figures and frame looked like something a group of six-year-olds might have created, but without the charm of childrens’ art. Ditto the scripts. One play was called “Wind” and consisted mostly of a young man unfurling his long hair and whipping it around in a circle while another actor pretended to be battered by a gale. Marcel Marceau spinning in his grave would be more convincing. Another consisted of a single phrase—Do you have it?—repeated by various beings (animals? humans? who would tell?) to no apparent purpose.

You know you’re dealing with weak material when the cast has to sing a refrain cueing the baffled audience that the “play” has ended. Another exit strategy was to have the cast inexplicably collapse to the floor. I suppose some of the endless prancing about the stage could have been goofy fun if the cast was up to snuff, but most of them lacked the physical props necessary to be convincing clowns.

Was the rest of the performance an improvement? We can’t tell you—we bolted after twenty-five minutes of torture. We did not flee alone. One man, who said he’d seen and enjoyed them dozens of times before, cried “Awful! Simply awful!” as he stormed out. We beg to disagree; the show wasn’t nearly good enough to be merely awful. How did incisive agit-prop become agit- malaprop?

If Peter Schumann has any fresh ideas, now would be the time to debut them because from where we sit, Bread and Puppet is trapped in a package that’s several decades past its sell-by date. At a time in history in which America desperately needs a new New Left to agitate and provoke, Bread and Puppet agitated only the audience that came to adore them, and provoked only the fear that the progressive movement has become halt and lame. This is one circus in desperate need of resurrection.


Tummy Tax Time

Why do we pay so little to make ourselves fat?

Here are some sobering statistics. If you are an American over the age of twenty, you’ve got a two in three chance of being either overweight or obese. That’s right, 66% of us are fatsos in fact or in the making. And we’re getting tubbier; 33% of those between six and nineteen are moving more bulk than they should, and the rest of us know what will happen to them when gravity takes over.

I’m not preaching; I need to lose five pounds to get back to the “normal” range for people of my height. But I do want to suggest that it’s time to resurrect the “junk food” tax that was proposed and scrapped. In typical American fashion, that proposal was quashed, not because it was a bad idea but because the fast food industry peddled fear. We were told that the government wanted to double the price of our Big Macs—not a bad idea, come to think of it—and take away our “freedom of choice.” It didn’t take much given to convince tax-averse Americans to get up in (flabby) arms to oppose the bill. (To be fair, fifty-three percent of those polled still support a tax on soft drinks).

Mainly, though, the public will to tax pudgy grub passed because we’re so deeply in denial. Two-thirds of Americans are portly to corpulent, yet the same percentage of Americans tells pollsters that they personally are in neither category. A mere 4% admit to obesity, a belief out of accord with data by nearly 800%.

A recent trip to the grocery store tested my arterial blood-carrying capacity by making me angry as I traversed the cereal and beverage aisles. Major cereal brands by Kellogg, Post, and General Mills were on sale—or so I thought. Actually, only the sweet stuff was on sale; if you wanted to buy just toasted bran flakes, un-sugared Chex, or plain old shredded wheat you had to pony up the full price. So explain to me why it costs more to not add sugar or food coloring that would make an LSD user go into rehab.

I was already stoked by the time I got to the drinks aisle. I don’t drink soda—more because I simply don’t like the taste than for any moral reason. I do, however, enjoy seltzer water—the plain stuff without the god-awful flavored stuff concocted by mad scientists. I pay 79 cents for a store brand two-liter bottle. I was shocked to find that a sale had pushed the price of Coke below that of generic seltzer.

The junk food industry operates like the drug dealers of a crime syndicate. The Center for Disease Control estimates it costs $40 billion per year to treat obesity-related problems, a lot of which comes from taxpayer (stretch pants) pockets. Americans are like junkies who get their first taste for free and then steal to support their habits. Folks, it’s just wrong that junk food is cheaper than wholesome comestibles. We need to tax the hell out of this crap. Barring that, maybe we ought to dismantle the CDC, make eating part of the war on drugs, and let the Drug Enforcement Agency take over.


Welcome to (a)ME(r)I(ca)

As I write this blog entry, local police are searching for the driver of a hit-and-run vehicle that struck down two bicyclists and left one dead along the roadside—a horrifying incident that has many residents wondering what sort of person could flee from such a grisly scene. It would be easy enough to dismiss the perpetrator as a monster and wish for their speedy arrest and lengthy incarceration.

To be sure, the latter is also my wish, but an arrest merely begs the question of how such behavior is possible in the first place. Alas, the answer lies deeper in the national soul. An act of such grotesque immorality is only conceivable in a society that elevates individuals over community with the cavalier disregard of modern America. It’s as if we live in a postmodern nightmare in which all meaning, value judgment, and moral choice is reduced to interpretation and perspective—a nation in which we jettison all the letters of America except the “me” and the “I.”

Let us revisit recent social debates. Universal health care? I’ve heard that deemed “socialist,” as if that was ipso facto a bad thing guaranteed to lead to Stalinist gulags. (Funny how the Brits, Canadians, and Scandinavians have avoided those.) Any appeal for taxes—even if it’s to fund local schools or keep the parks open—is greeted by howling mobs screaming that the “government”—a term of derision second only to “terrorists”—is trying to loot worker paychecks. The common refrain--“Why shouldn’t I get to keep my money?”—greets every mention of the word “tax.” Do the tax rebels ever ask how they would earn that money outside of communities whose very infrastructure (communications, roads, schools, parks, fire departments, police, municipal government, etc.) depend upon taxes? It’s not really a matter of “my” money; capital has social dimensions as well as an economic ones. That truth is conveniently dismissed when CEOs of failed financial institutions pocket their bonuses and try to tell us that without these “top talent” would flee. (Adios! See ‘ya!)

And it’s not just the big issues where we see individualism run amok. It shows up in the jerks who talk during a movie, the person who thinks everyone on the bus is interested in her cell phone call, and the drivers who think that right turn on red after stopping (and if the way is clear) is a mere suggestion directed at those whose time is less valuable than their own. It’s the retail clerk who can’t be bothered to interrupt a personal conversation to wait on you; it’s the repair person who doesn’t return your call, the delivery person who doesn’t show up, the insurance agent who’s too smug to use common English, and the doctor who will tell you to your face that he left you waiting for an hour because he is a busy professional (as if you aren’t). And, yes, it’s the Internet bloggers who try to tell you that the Founding Fathers were budding libertarians who envisioned a nation based entirely on individual freedom. Not exactly. The Founders also wanted a United States, fretted about community, and enumerated those freedoms deemed important in promoting the “general welfare.” They worried about things such as despotism—associated with individual abuses of power—and the tyranny of the majority. The latter is often cited as “proof” of the Founders’ intent to enshrine radical individualism when, in fact, they feared that demagogues might lead a gullible public astray in ways that damaged the collected body politic. (They established safeguards that minimized both possibilities.)

How can a human being leave one of his fellows bloodied along the roadside? It’s not that hard when it’s all about “me” and never about “we.” This small-scale tragedy is a symptom of a deeper social ill.--LV