Countercultural puppet show returns to historic farm

VERNON. A performance of a climate-change invective is cut short by a wild thunderstorm.

Vernon /
| 18 Sep 2023 | 07:47

For the third year running, the itinerant Bread and Puppet Theater traveled by hand-painted school bus to Meadowburn Farm in Vernon to perform before an audience of about 150 people arrayed on blankets and camping chairs.

Farmer Jesse Clark fed the players lunch and dinner and, along with her eldest son, Jonah, was busy directing traffic before the show.

“I just have them here because I feel like our little corner of the world deserves to have them,” he said. “And we don’t go anywhere, so the only way we get to see these things is when we bring them here.”

The troupe, known for its radical politics, presented the “Heart of the Matter Circus” to the accompaniment of an exuberant seven-piece brass band. Performers stilt-walked, danced, sang and manipulated massive papier-mache puppets, acting out a series of skits inspired by current events, excoriating greed and militarism with a mix of whimsy and gravity.

An opening skit featured a massive “Mother Dirt” puppet facing off against “fossil fuel tycoons and their government cronies.” The Montana 16 come to the rescue, a reference to the group of young people who recently sued their state for violating their right to a clean environment and won.

“But that would require a major restructuring of the economy and cause massive societal changes!” a tycoon laments, to a chorus of “Exactly!”

Some festival-goers found an additional layer of meaning in the unscripted ending. Three-quarters of the way through a show focused acutely on climate change, a darkening sky opened up into a wild thunderstorm that sent everyone scurrying to their cars to dodge downed trees on their drive home.

Clark doesn’t profit from hosting the troupe nor does she do much in the way of promotion, she said.

But each year people stream in, some driving an hour and a half to be there.

For the first year’s show, during the culture-starved days of the pandemic, more than 500 people showed up for the socially distanced production.

The suggested donation was $10 to $25, but no one was turned away for lack of funds.

All proceeds went to the Vermont-based collective, one of the oldest self-supporting theaters in the country.

Bread and Puppet is the brainchild of Peter Schumann, 89, an iconoclastic German immigrant who during the decades has earned a cult following for his prolific art, theater and tradition of using an outdoor oven to bake sourdough bread to feed audiences.