Bread And Puppet Theater / Panel Discussion Closes Out Marginal Arts

by Gene Marrano

The financial crisis is satirized and played for laughs by the Bread and Puppet Theatre.

Call it political theater of the absurd perhaps, with a heavy dose of satire, social commentary and a pinch of vaudeville thrown in. The fourth annual Marginal Arts Festival capped off its long weekend run in Roanoke on Monday night with a performance by the Bread and Puppet Theatre, a Vermont-based troupe that has been skewering current events in its own special way since the early ‘60’s.

Founded at Brattleboro College, Bread and Puppet Theatre now has its own 200 acre spread in the Green Mountain State, where it archives almost 50 years of puppets and props.   Politicians and news of the day are likely targets for Bread and Puppet, which gave a performance at Hollins University on Monday, following a discussion on arts and the community.

With a backdrop declaring it the “Decapitalzation Circus,” the group took on controversial state laws in Arizona with “America’s favorite game show – Name that Alien,” and the financial crisis, featuring Bernie Madoff, Treasury secretary Timothy Geitner, Citi Bank, et al. Bread and Puppet spoofed universal health care – taking a dig at the free market approach as well as other efforts proposed to solve the problem of the uninsured. The Tea Party got its comeuppance too: “get a job!” shouted the tea partiers to someone on stage portraying the uninsured.

Hollins students and local artist Polly Branch were recruited by Bread and Puppet Theatre for several sketches. Other targets included the war in Afghanistan, along with runaway military spending and corporate welfare. Even unemployed farmers in upstate New York who wind up working as jailers were subjects of the group’s left-leaning satire, which kept several hundred people in the Hollins gym entertained for an hour.

Bread and Puppet Theatre, which also appeared in the downtown Marginal Arts parade last Saturday, led people from a reception after the panel discussion on another impromptu parade route to the Hollins gym for their performance.  Eleanor D. Wilson Museum executive director Amy Moorefield kicked off the panel discussion, called Arts = Community, by declaring that “art builds bridges.” (The Wilson Museum is located on the Hollins campus.)

Panel discussion moderator Olchar Lindsann, an artist who moved to Roanoke in part because of the area’s “strong sense of community,” told the audience that, “Marginal Arts explores … that connection between the international and local [arts] communities.”

Performance artists from England performed Sunday at the Taubman Museum of Art, helping to give the festival a true international feel. Alexandra Zierie, who took part in that performance, which was largely improvised, said the “interaction with audience members [at the Taubman] was  … very experiential.”

Floyd artist and teacher Lori Geisler took students to watch Charlie Brouwer assemble his “Rise up Roanoke” installation piece from donated ladders in the Taubman atrium.  “I was really motivated to participate this weekend,” said Geisler, who discussed the symbolism of ladders with her young students. Roanoke painter Susan Jamison said appreciation of the arts and being a part of that community calls for openness: “you need to be open to an experience, [like] putting on a crazy outfit and running down the street in a parade.”

Helen Frederick, the Frances Niederer artist-in-residence at Hollins this semester and a panel member, said there was “an urgent need for collaboration” for those in the artistic community. Events like Marginal Arts help make those connections possible, said Frederick, whose exhibit “Dissonance” is on display at the Wilson Museum now.

Parade organizer Ralph Eaton, a local artist, reported that Saturday’s parade was “bigger than ever,” this time, with more spectators as well. Eaton also had three entries in a juried art show held at Roanoke College as part of the Marginal Arts Festival.

True to their name, Bread and Puppet built a brick oven outside the Moody Center at Hollins – and then baked bread that they served to attendees after their performance. This was the third year that Hollins University took part in the Marginal Arts event, organized by art teacher Brian Counihan and others at Community High School.