There’s no bigtop, but there will be some big puppets. Really big puppets.

The Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Circus will perform Sunday at Fort Allen Park in Portland. There will be 20-foot-tall pageant-style puppets, life-size tiger puppets and tiny hand puppets. Plus, there will be live music, stilt-walking, flag dancing and lots of people in masks.

“For us, anything that involves combining the human body and performing with an object is puppet theater,” said Josh Krugman, a puppeteer with Bread and Puppet Theater, based in Glover, Vermont. “It’s expressing something or telling a story, with the help of an object.”

The Bread and Puppet Circus will perform Sunday at Fort Allen Park in Portland. Photo by Leonardo March

The 1-hour, open-air show will feature about 25 performers and hundreds of puppets, divided up into about 20 acts. The acts will range from silly to serious, Krugman said, with the mood of the show changing abruptly from act to act. In one act, a puppeteer from Haiti does a performance that is about the Haitian revolution of the early 1800s and the development of the Creole language. Another more contemporary story told by the performers will be of a present-day immigrant to the United States separated from her child at the southern border.

Setting the mood for many acts will be a five-piece brass band, plus smaller configurations of musicians playing at various times.

“It can quickly go from slapstick to pathos,” said Krugman of the circus.

The arrival of the troupe is part of the show as well, as it always comes to circus sites in a brightly painted school bus, Krugman said.

The open-air show has no formal admission, though a hat will be passed, and donations of $10 to $25 are suggested. The Bread and Puppet Theater is a 56-year-old puppet theater group founded in New York City, but based in Vermont since the 1970s. The name is not just a reference to the fact that a Roman writer famously said that all the masses really want are “bread and circuses.” It’s also a literal description of the show. At every performance, including the upcoming one in Portland, the Bread and Puppet folks serve sourdough rye bread to the crowd. On the group’s website, theater is compared to bread, because both are necessities of life.

Bread and Puppet tours the world all year and does an annual late-summer circus tour. After playing Portland, the group will head to France, Krugman said.

Bread and Puppet has come to Portland several times over the years, largely because of its relationship with Mayo Street Arts, an arts presenter in East Bayside that hosts all kinds of puppet performances.  Krugman said he knows there’s a built-in audience for puppet theater in Portland, thanks largely to the work Mayo Street Arts has done over the years. But there are many other puppeteers in Portland, making it a puppet mecca.

“We’re lucky that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for puppet theater in Portland,” said Krugman. “Many Bread and Puppet puppeteers have performed in Portland over the years with their own companies.”

In addition to Mayo Street Arts, Portland is home to Shoestring Theater, famous for pageant-size puppets that look a lot like Bread and Puppet puppets. Portlanders know Shoestring Theater puppets because of the local parades they march in. Besides those two groups, you can see puppeteers working in many facets of the city’s art scene, including film and local theater.

Mayo Street Arts’ director, Blainor McGough, is herself a puppeteer. She said that because Maine has had an active puppet scene since the 1970s, there are lots of people who have worked with both Bread and Puppet and various Portland groups. So when someone suggested that Mayo Street host a Bread and Puppet Circus, McGough jumped at the idea.

This is the third year Mayo Street has helped bring the circus to town. As a community arts organization, Mayo Street sees great value in bringing Bread and Puppet here, McGough said.

“Puppet theater is suited to community arts in general because it includes music, dancing, theater, script writing and magical realism,” she said. “Plus, a giant puppet spectacle is just damn entertaining.”

The Bread and Puppet Circus is visiting Portland as part of its annual late-summer tour. Photo by Leonardo March


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