The Passing Spectacle Vol. VII, No. 4

Circus Flora Goes Cabaret

Circus Flora was founded by David Balding to create an amalgam of theater and circus.  In its most recent production, The Case of the Missing Bellhop, staged in its hometown of St. Louis, MO, the creative team has decided to marry circus to cabaret.  Since cabaret performers tend to have more direct contact with audiences and are, therefore, able to project more personality, they are usually able to generate more audience appeal than acrobats who have other things to worry about.  Such is surely the case with the Missing Bellhop.   The cabaret elements of show not only drive the plot but threaten to take it hostage, which in fact is exactly what happens here.

This is accomplished despite the fact that the principle cabaret performer, Amy Gordon, delivers a performance that is entirely dependent on overcoming the show’s notoriously erratic sound system so that her verbal jokes and witty patter get over and are as effective as possible.  Everyone may not always latch onto each of her jokes but it is always possible for a sizeable portion of the audience to catch the general drift of where her dialogue is going.  We may miss a joke here and there that others get, but the slightly naughty tone is unmistakable.

Cast as a world-renown detective, Gordon makes four appearances during the course of the plot’s machinations to solve the central mystery.  She is often aided and abetted by Adam Kuchler as the bellhop in question, whose performance seems a mixture of bellhop and French maid, with the feather duster he swishes about with abandon.  As a bellhop his major contribution to bellhopery is a clever and charming interlude on a set of bells of the sort one rings for service.

In contrast there are seven bona fide circus acts interspersed throughout the proceedings, each of them cast as a possible suspect in the case of the missing bellhop, who isn’t really missing at all and turns up periodically to contribute some broad comedy.

Cusin Grumpy and the Porkchop Revue win the competition for most sensational entrance.  The appearance of  three huge porkers and one squealing baby pig provide a huge surprise that gets the biggest reaction of the performance. Once they are in place it’s one fat joke after another based on the improbability of these rotund creatures doing anything more than wallowing in their enormity.

The Flying Wallendas, a regular feature with Circus Flora, have been moved up in the program to second place, where they display some of the sort of tricks that have made them not only audience favorites but heart-stopping sensationalists.

Aurelia Wallenda-Zoppè, it turns out, also serves as  company manager and if you’ve ever wondered what doubling in brass is all about she provides first hand evidence.  She has  no sooner left the ring to the standing ovation inevitably accorded the Wallendas than she is back, out of her costume and into work clothes to assist, along with brother Alex, with the set up of the Wheel of Death (or Destiny, depending on how terrorizing one wishes to be)   Alex later works unseen heading the crew that handles  the pull-up rope for the penultimate aerial display.

Once on the  Wheel  Jayson Dominguez is an adept daredevil, who pushes his performances to the limits of foolhardiness with extravagant showmanship.

The second half of the performance opens with the St. Louis Arches, playing a pack of kids under the tutelage of Jessica Hentoff (art imitating life).  This group of Arches is a bit more mature than we have seen in the past and as a result their performance has escalated into the advanced realm of banquine acrobatics, in which various members of the troupe are hurled aloft to land standing straight up in the arms of their fellow Arches.  The result is an exciting and complex display that never lacks for energy or enthusiasm.

The Alamian Riders, two women and a male,  present Cossack-style riding whose drum-beat rhythm produces a level of predictable excitement, but their repertoire lacks some of the more daring tricks usually associated with this kind of act.

A last minute replacement, aerialist Rachel Karabenick gives a creditable accounting of the skills associated with the single point trapeze

The Canadian troupe, Swing Up, closes the circus portion of the show with a lively, but somewhat repetitious rendering of the fast becoming ubiquitous specialty on the wall trampoline.  The trio is composed of Marine Crest, Tyler Clemmer and Felix Di Pasquale, who bounce in and out of the windows and on to the roof of what is meant to represent the exterior of the Balding Hotel, which figures prominently in the mystery.

Once the business of the circus is put aside the cabaret returns for a final flurry of fun as a child from the audience is asked to name the culprit responsible for the disappearance of the bellhop.  The results changed from performance to performance, and provided a chance for the principal characters to improvise a surprise ending.

The script is credited to Cecil MacKinnon (who is also Yo-Yo the clown and narrator) and Jack Marsh.  However, Amy Gordon tells me she scripted her own material which accounts for about 80 percent of the show’s spoken word.  MacKinnon is also the director. Scenic designers are Margery and Peter Spack.  Nina Reed is costume designer.


Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Takes Over a Cabaret

From a cabaret-like circus in St. Louis, we move East to a true cabaret setting in New York City.  It features a raised stage with musicians seated in full view, table service, a full bar, a minimum charge and finally direct contact by the performers with the audience.  It’s the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus  at the Cutting Room  on East 32nd St., a venue that gives the company’s work a certain slickness it does not always possess.

Featured in the show are several acts that I have not seen with the Bindlestiffs before:  the most entertaining among them being David Kaplan, billed rather haphazardly thanks to the recalcitrant props he uses as The Great Kaplan.  One thing is sure despite those haphazardly-inclined props, Kaplan who looks slightly disreputable, is one of the most amusing magicians I have had the pleasure of encountering.  His delightful performance is stocked with a surprising repertoire of tricks that can’t rightfully be called illusions.  It’s really all about the props which have a way of misbehaving in unexpected ways.  Although some props do manage to behave musically in ways we might never have thought possible.

I was also awed by the performance of Evan Ruggiero who unabashedly refers to his prosthetic limb as a “peg-leg.”   He is a marvelous tap dancer who uses his artificial leg to great advantage, dancing with enormous energy and verve.  He is also a highly evocative vocalist and musician. Combining all these talents makes him a very powerful performer.

Seen close up as they are in this intimate setting Mr. and Mrs G.,  crossbow artists, present their dangerous act with a greater flare for theatrics than most such artists usually put forth.  Their dancing and poses enhance the performance as they take turns serving as the other’s target, always with an enormous  supply of pizazz

Add to all this  Keith Nelson, Bindlestiff co-founder, who  displays his apparently endless repertoire of side show and circus turns with a polished  flare that works best in this kind of setting.  This time out he reprises his frantic  plate spinning and sword swallowing routines and also comes up with something I haven’t seen him do before,  balancing a three high stack of glasses on a spoon-like device he hold in his mouth.

Rounding out the cast is Chloe Somers who contributes three specialties: hula hooping, walking on upright champagne bottles, and contortion on a single point trapeze.  In all these offerings she always works in high-heeled shoes , which adds a degree of difficulty and sophistication to each.

Stephanie Monseu , co-founder with Keith,  is limited to a supporting role to which she gives full measure, and an old friend Michelle Matlock, coming off nine years as Ladybug in  Cirque du Soleil’s OVO, provided the direction.



Cirque Éloize Builds a Saloon

According to program notes Cirque Éloize’s latest production Saloon was inspired by “the rich heritage of [America’s]  wild, wild west.”   The repetition of the word “wild” turns out to be significant, for much of the production’s  eighty minutes are devoted to creating a sense of the brawling, boisterous nature of those rambunctious times.

Occasionally things slow down a bit to allow an act to play itself out before another  free for all breaks out involving the entire cast of eight acrobats and three musicians, all of whom exhibit extreme versatility during the course of the show having to work at various times as dancers, singers and actors in addition to their primary acrobatic function or providing musical accompaniment.  Often, however, we seem to be just filling time and space with these raucous dance interludes despite their exuberant athleticism.

Before the curtain rises on the structural setting we get a preview of what we are in for once the action begins thanks to the sound effects that include the chugging of on-coming trains, galloping horses and , the clamor of hammers on steel and rock.  This gambit seems to be a favorite device to establish the mood and tone used by each of the last Éloize shows I have seen.  It is oddly effective in a subliminal way conjured up no doubt by director Emanuel Guillaume.

The first of the featured acts, an impressive turn on the Chinese pole, is in full force before we even know that we have passed from prologue to feature act.  Blurring the performance even further are dance interludes involving the entire cast that roar into action between the major tricks of this impressive display.  It is difficult to identify any of the individual performers for they are listed in the program as various characters rather than by acrobatic specialties.

A rather standard club juggling act melds into a rather violent hand to hand balancing act that plays itself out across several levels of the setting.  It is further complicated by the appearance of a rival for the female participant’s affection.

An aerial duet involving two of the cast’s women is performed on the wagon-wheel chandelier.  This soon gives way to another of those brawls that seem to erupt every so often and finally subsides with one of the most strenuous displays involving the Cyr wheel that I can recall seeing.  This one incorporates a great deal of contortion into its intricate choreography.

One of the cast’s most outrageous males, his performance includes every sort of physical activity imaginable, caps off his appearances with a seriously muscular work out on aerial straps.

The show’s energy has  by now been ratcheting up the excitement level act by act until it reaches its pinnacle in a breathtaking workout on the Korean plank that includes at least one triple and  sends the production into a rousing finale.

At this point the saloon of the title seems permanently open for business  and the entire cast joins together downstage for a gorgeous close harmony rendition of “Ring of Fire,” revealing another aspect of this multi-talented company.

The original music has been directed, composed and arranged by Eloi Painchaud.  The energetic choreography is by Annie St-Pierre.  Sets and props were designed by Francis Farley and the costumes by Sarah Balleux. Jeannot Painchaud is president and artistic director.

Reviewed at the McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ.