Bread and Puppet Theater’s “Grasshopper Rebellion Circus”
“Joyful chaos,” in the words of one of its characters, was the only fitting way to describe the Bread and Puppet Theater’s October 22 performance in Greenwood. A politically conscious theater group founded in the 1960s, the Bread and Puppet Theater visited Reed last week to unveil their newest show, titled “The Grasshopper Rebellion Circus.” The show, which featured giant puppets and live music, called upon volunteers from the crowd to assist in the spectacle, several of which were Reed students.
The theater was completely filled, and patrons sat on the floor and stood in the wings. But the company itself also filled the space; the sounds of their talented brass band resounded throughout the building, and their massive papier-mâché puppets had trouble fitting under the stage lights.
From the moment the theater group began parading through the quad in preparation for the show, it was clear that Reed was in for a treat. Onlookers stopped to watch as performers twirled flags and danced around in carrot costumes, and masked puppet-people danced on stilts and rode on an elevated bicycle.
This revelry did not stop until the show had ended.
The performance itself was as bizarre as its name suggested. “The Grasshopper Rebellion Circus” was a whirlwind of weird in the best possible way. Using puppets, masks, cardboard cutouts, and anything else imaginable, the show was structured as a series of vignettes covering a wide range of social, political, racial, and environmental issues.
In the opening scene, performers operated two tall puppets, with faces made of innumerable tiny faces, on large poles with quilted bodies and papier-mâché hands. The two giant puppets simply tried to hug each other, but ICE agents, covered with exaggerated masks, attempted to winch the two apart. All of the drama was, in the meanwhile, accompanied by the inventive sound-effects of the band.
Another scene starred a giant puppet of President James Madison. Madison played a major role in drafting the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment. As the giant Madison puppet stumbled onstage, his “holy cow” followed close behind and gave birth to a cardboard gun. The performers — presumably, the American citizenry — took these guns and proceeded to march back and forth across the stage. One by one, they fell to the ground as if they had been shot.
Some scenes were similar in their use of slightly abstract narratives, but a handful of others explicitly referenced specific issues. In two contrasting scenes, the players honored the recent Chilean feminist student protests, singing, “We won’t sit down” while making percussive sounds and wielding folding chairs above their heads. In the second scene, they recognized the union of female retail workers fighting for the right to sit down during their 12-hour work day by singing, “We will sit down” and performing choreography with the same folding chairs.
It was clear, however, that the show was constantly evolving to stay on top of current issues. For example, it included two scenes addressing the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In one scene, several actors tried to brush away rape culture with brooms, each sweep being punctuated by a scream. In the second, seven actors dressed in the robes of justices and powdered wigs came on stage. They disrobed, revealing exercise-wear with one giant letter on their stomachs — together, they spelled out “fascist.” They continued to sing and dance while referencing various court decisions, such as their siding with the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple.
The show was, at times, bleak, but there were some heroes. In one scene, the Antarctic Ice Shelf, constructed of actors under a white tarp with one central actor on stilts, came on stage followed by the “C O Tuneless Orchestra.” Made up of people baring cardboard cars, houses, and factories, they began to pollute the theater with their screeches. Slowly at first and then progressively more quickly, the Ice Shelf began to collapse and fall to the floor. The “Possibilitarians” heroically entered, explaining themselves as people who, “shit on impossibilities.” They transformed the orchestra to greener possibilities and restored the Ice Shelf to its former glory.
The Possibilitarians were active in several scenes — they heroically came to remove the buckets, placed by the Media, which covered the heads of Americans to blind them to the U.S.-backed Saudi attacks on Yemen.
But the ultimate heroes of the show were the “Celestial Grasshoppers.” They came down from the heavens to show the people how to jump, dance, and rebel against the evils of the world.
From dancing zebras to cavemen fighting robots, the “Grasshopper Rebellion Circus” offered an entertaining survey of various issues that the world faces today. Indeed, the company’s director, Peter Schumann, has said that “The ‘Grasshopper Rebellion Circus’ is a celebration of 6,000 years of human revolution against human management.” In spite of engaging with serious topics, the show managed to be “joyful chaos.” The show was a call to action, suggesting that there is some hope for the future if we follow the guidance of the “Celestial Grasshoppers.”
Founded in 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theater is “one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the country,” according to their website. The company began by illuminating problems more local to their origins in the Lower East Side of New York City, but have, throughout the years, branched out to tackle global issues through theater, puppets, song, and dance. After every show, moreover, they aim to create a community with their audience by sharing bread and aioli with them. The Bread and Puppet Theater’s “Grasshopper Rebellion Circus” will continue to tour the U.S. until December.