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Done on a grand scale

Troupe uses large puppets to tackle issues equally big

JONATHAN SLAFF Peter Schumann narrates the prologue of the Bread & Puppet Theater’s “Tear Open the Door of Heaven.’’
JONATHAN SLAFF
Peter Schumann narrates the prologue of the Bread & Puppet Theater’s “Tear Open the Door of Heaven.’’ (Jonathan Slaff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2010

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Peter Schumann leads his Vermont-based Bread & Puppet Theater into the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts next week with politically charged shows starring live performers and giant papier-mâché puppets. But the social moment has changed a lot since last year’s visit, he says.

“We were all so delighted when Obama won the election. It seemed like it was a change in American politics,’’ Schumann says by phone from Bread & Puppet headquarters in Vermont. “I guess we all overestimated what anybody could do in that position. We were pretty naïve.

“I’ll never forget the moment when he was elected,’’ Schumann continues. “There was a reporter on the street in a black neighborhood and a woman said, ‘Yes! He will cure AIDS!’ He was a messiah, people took him for changing the world, deep down and all over. Now, OK, those things have not materialized. Not only is AIDS still with us, but a lot of other things as well.’’

A native of Silesia, 75-year-old Schumann has been leading Bread & Puppet since its inception in the early 1960s on the Lower East Side of New York City. The group’s giant puppets became a staple at antiwar and anti-nuclear rallies and other countercultural events. The troupe moved to Goddard College in Vermont in the 1970s, and has long been based on a farm in there, where they do their shows in the summer.

The annual Boston visit includes two different shows, “Tear Open the Door of Heaven’’ (Jan. 28-31, evenings), which also features the Lubberland National Dance Company, and the more family-oriented “Dirt Cheap Money Circus’’ (Jan. 30-31, matinees). The residency includes a week-long political art installation which begins Monday and the usual after-show bread distributions.

“Heaven’’ features giant puppets representing, among others, God and a US president. The play “is about the fact that we felt we absolutely needed a brand-new religion,’’ Schumann says. “We called it the Paper Mache Religion, indicating that it is a disposable religion.’’

“Dirt Cheap’’ tackles government and greed and features the “billionaire bonus celebration dance’’ and appearances by both Groucho and Karl Marx. The press release specifies that “some of the circus acts are politically puzzling to adults, but accompanying kids can usually explain them.’’

As in every community where Bread & Puppet performs, Schumann and the six puppeteers will be joined by dancers, musicians, and others recruited locally.

“In the case of Boston, as in New York, where we have been frequently, it is no problem at all,’’ Schumann says. “The real challenge is when we go on the road with the bus and we arrive in a town and we are only six performers and we need 40 minimum and we have to find the rest on the spot.’’

Schumann appreciates that many of those who come out don’t have an ulterior motive for getting involved. “Joining in . . . is just as much to be expressive about issues you care for strongly but in your life there isn’t any spot where you can make your fury into form, into something that speaks publicly, so the puppetry does that.’’

Bread & Puppet has no foundation support, and economic conditions remain difficult, Schumann says. “We rely on gigs in the other months when we have too much snow here to do anything in winter, so we travel around. To find those gigs, to get money for them, is more and more difficult. As I suppose it is for all artists.’’

Full-price tickets are $10-$12 and are available (cash or check only) in the Cyclorama one hour before each show. For advance tickets, visit www.theatermania.com/boston/ or call 866-811-4111.