Subtlety is not in the repertoire of Bread and Puppet Theater.
The socially radical company thrives on critiquing the political order of the moment. Which makes this as good a time as any to see how the company turns the machinations of politics into art.
Buffalo audiences will have a chance to take in the company's trademark aesthetic on May 23, when the troupe performs in the Donald Savage Theatre on the campus of SUNY Buffalo State. It will perform a piece called "Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for Rotten Idea," which features the ritualized burial of an unspecified "recent political-economical event" and comes complete with "secular scripture readings, a fiddle sermon, and hymns in which the public is invited to participate."
Woven into that performance will be a participatory event called the "Whatforward Circus," described as a statement against the "passions and politics of our capitalist culture," which features "Mongolian hordes, singing toilets and stilted flying businessmen."
The troupe, which is making its third visit to Buffalo since 2008, is coming at the invitation of local artist and performer Andrew Ross, who spent the summer of 2012 studying with the group at its headquarters in rural Vermont. Ross said he was drawn to the company's aesthetic because it sidesteps the concerns of many elite art institutions and attempts to speak to everyone.
The troupe has been exporting its grassroots style of performance to college campuses and out-of-the-way performance spaces since 1963, when it was founded by the German-born artist Peter Schumann.
"What stood out to me most was the lack of ego onstage," Ross said. "This was something completely new, a complete collaborative effort to make something that resounded among the masses instead of with a select group of people."
One of the troupe's biggest local proponents is performance artist, curator and arts writer Ron Ehmke, who has woven many of its themes and stylistic trademarks into his own work.
"They have created some of the most beautiful images I have ever seen on a stage, and done so with some of the simplest, humblest and least expensive means imaginable," Ehmke wrote in a Facebook post about the troupe. "The fact that they have survived as a company for, jeez, it's gotta be 50 years by now, is nothing short of miraculous."
For Ross, the appeal of Bread and Circus has as much to do with its progressive subject matter as with its radical aesthetic, which is based on the idea that art belongs to everyone and can be created by anyone -- not just a small group of insiders.
"The aesthetic revolves around this concept of cheap art," Ross said. "Their puppets are products of found material. There's really no lavishness to it. It's a gritty experience that at the same time is immersive. It feels like something that's accessible and something that inspires people to want to do it themselves."
What: Bread and Puppet Theater
When: 7 p.m. May 23
Where: Donald Savage Theatre, SUNY Buffalo State, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: Suggested donation of $10 to $20; no one turned away for lack of funds