Step out of the cold and under the big top: a circus at the Fleming Museum

Winter drills a dull hum of white landscapes and inactivity unless you’re on the slopes, or it seems, hanging around the Fleming museum this spring semester. Walking into the Wilbur Room eerie, grey ghoul-like faces peer out of glass cases while a paper Mache lion dressed in rags lures you in further, as if to say welcome to the show.            These figures and masked faces are old in theatre ideology but also relevant to performing arts today. One of three circus themed exhibits currently at the Fleming, “Masked Spectacle” displays masks created by Vermont-based Bread and Puppet theatre and Giuseppe Pecsenke prints, inspired by “Commedia dell’Arte.” The masks, inspired by the 15th century Italian precursor to circus, are not your typical Halloween, latex imitation grim reapers.  The most intriguing are arguably the witches, with abnormally large nostrils, small black eye-holes and long, grey colored straw flowing out in tendrils. “The figures…in “commedia,” are based on types, they are not individuals, and they wear masks and stress human themes including love, money, sex, greed, hunger, war, fear and death,” said exhibit curator, Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. The realistic ink etchings of Pecsenke reveal the lively world of “Commedia dell’Arte”; the masks, the ornate costumes and stunts preformed on stage.  “Similarly, Bread & Puppet features masked characters who explore these same themes,” DeGalan adds. “Artists felt a kinship with many of the characters in the circus because they often live by their talent and skill at the fringes of society.” The faces are stoic and contorted, yet life shines through tiny beady eyes.  Originally crafted from leather, early Bread and Puppet masks are of sculpey like material, and now more varied, like papier-mâché. Though “Commedia”is nearly five hundred years old, audiences can still find it as both comic relief and disturbing, depending on the scenario unfolding. DeGalan adds, “Bread and Puppet, like ‘commedia,’ are populist forms of theater, with no set dialogue or stage sets…In Bread & Puppet, the identity of the mask is not necessarily fixed; it changes based on the performance…resonat[ing] deeply with their audiences.” Sophomore Jenna Sciolla is intrigued with the use of masks in performance art. “It allows me to escape boundaries of which my actual identity can prohibit,” said Sciolla “I have always wanted to see Bread and Puppet theatre, to see their perspective on how they represent the controversial issues of our age. ” Bread and Puppet Theatre is committed to the expression of radical ideas and thoughts being accessible and cheap for any viewer in the form of public art. The tendency of artists to replicate such spectacles of human entertainment in their art can be seen in the other exhibits on display, “Under the Big Top and Georges Rouault.” The Fleming’s “circus” will remain on display until early May and will be hosting a performance by Commedia VT on April 27.