Passing Spectacle Vol. VIII, No. 6

Circus Flora Goes Shopping for Comedy


Of all the settings in which one might place a circus performance, a super market seems one of the more unlikely. That, however, is just what Circus Flora has done this year, with its production The Caper in Aisle 6 which is set in a 50’s Jetson-style imitation of Schnuck’s Market an actual popular St. Louis landmark, run in this instance by a pair of clowns, Matt Morgan the store manager and Mookie Cornish his cashier.    Several of the acts are cast as characters appropriate to the setting: the Arches are vegetables, the Wallenda’s are upper management, juggler Kellin (the erstwhile Hentoff Killian) is the stock boy, and the bareback rider Caleb is the delivery man.

The rest of the cast in one way or another helps advance the plot which has a lot to do with a rare mineral called Aurorium, some ubiquitous anchovies and the ability to fly. Don’t expect a plot summary here.  There is a lot of talk and the usual recalcitrant sound system to contend with if one tries to follow the machinations of Morgan and Cornish.  Thankfully Morgan has a fiendishly evil laugh and Cornish is tirelessly energetic so it is possible to catch the gist of what is going on.  So instead of a plot let’s talk about the acts which are usually much more interesting.

Let’s start with the St. Louis Arches and their dynamic display of group acrobatics. They appear early in the program and manage to infuse it with a burst of energy and excitement that carries the show into the intermission.  The Arches diversity nowadays accrues from the range of ages more than a racial mix, but their tireless antics continually elicit gasps of surprise and delight from the audience.  There seems to be no end to their ability to toss one another about with a sense of charming abandon that is absolutely irresistible.

One of the Arches graduates, Kellin Hentoff Killian, who is here billed simply as Kellin is one of a rare breed of jugglers that does not simply rely on awing us with technical prowess: five, six seven, nine balls or clubs in the air. In addition to all that Kellin brings to his performance charm and character, aspects of performance he has indubitably learned during his many years as an Arch.  He invites the audience to be his co-conspirator as he works his way through his altogether enjoyable performance.

Kellin appears in the second half of the program, unquestionably the stronger more interesting segment. It concludes with The Flying Royals, one of the most exciting and impressive flying acts to be seen anywhere, and happily they are now in America at least for the time being.  Congratulations to Flora for getting them. The troupe works from a rigging that is in the form of a cross, providing three stations for the flyers to take off from and a fourth point for the catcher.  The result is a constant series of thrillingly choreographed flights and a variety of catches that provide nonstop visual excitement that is nothing short of glorious.

Since the plot involves the loss and eventual return of the ability for human flight the Flying Royals are both thematically and dramatically the closing act. The opening is a lyra act performed by The Nemean Sisters  both members of the Flying Royals.  Their presentation is a nicely designed series of attractive pictures and acrobatic poses, if ultimately a bit overly long.

Another of the acts that enhanced the second half was The Daring Horseman, a solo bareback riding act, presented by Caleb Asch with class and style. In its simplicity and the rarity of its traditional repertoire it was always captivating.  Caleb, like Kellin, brings a sense of character to his performance that elevates it above a mere display of technical excellence.

Another innovative act that Flora has brought to its audiences for the first time is a version of the increasingly popular Korean plank, in which two performers, here the Duo Ikai, work either end of a version of a teeterboard and alternately send each other aloft into a series of somersaults, spins and twists.  This particular duo presents a somewhat shorter  version of this kind of act stopping somewhat short of where we have seen other teams take this always exciting discipline.

The one act that seemed only tenuously attached to the plot was a trio of beautiful women appropriately titled Bellissimo. The three women present an impressive display of equilibrium that is essentially the same trick over and over again, albeit beautifully presented and ending with a burst of confetti.

By way of change of pace Hans Klose presented a display with hyper active dogs (are there any other kind in the circus?) and a pair of pigs. Its routine is somewhat predictable, except for the presence of the pigs who really do very little but stand around looking enormously pleased and porcine.

The Flying Wallendas on the high wire are cast as upper management and they perfectly pick their way through what the Wallendas do with aplomb and apparent ease.  It is always nice to have such calming and reassuring presence after so electric a display as the Arches.

And finally there are the comics Mookie Cornish and Matt Morgan who appear throughout the proceedings as exaggerated antagonists. Morgan with his evil laughter and Mookie with her effervescent and good natured enthusiasm, however cannot overcome the muddle that their attenuated  and not very amusing encounters with audience participants become.



Circus Smirkus Takes to a Carnival


Over the years each of Circus Smirkus’ productions has had a theme that more or less influenced the shape and form of the skill acts that the young performers presented with often surprising aplomb. This year the creators, Troy Wunderle and Mark Lonergan, have drawn their inspiration from carnivals and fun fairs.  Thus each of the acts is fashioned in such a way as to reflect or suggest the various pleasures both sensual and physical to be found in the environments of such amusements.  Those that are most successful at capturing these delights  are also the acts that produce the biggest thrills and deliver the most amusing visual impact .

Among these are a human carousel creatively choreographed by Matt Williams, a taffy-pull represented most imaginatively by six girls on fabric swatches that they weave together to replicate the taffy pulling machines. Another amusing image suggests the claws one operates in a game of chance to pull out a prize.  Here it evolves into five girls in a contortion exercise.  Another carousel puts two boys on realistic looking carousel horses which all too quickly disappear, but composer Peter Buffano’s evocative music for this interlude maintains the reference to this carnival favorite quite effectively.  The act finishes with the acrobats,  Serafina Walker & William Borges working on free swinging poles that briefly held the carousel horses.

The show works best in its earlier segments that include work on Chinese poles and a hoop diving display. We are well accustomed to seeing these exciting skill sets performed by professionals, often Chinese acrobats with jaw dropping panache.  Here the skill level is considerably lower, but the inventiveness of the acrobatic turns more than make up for what is lost in the skill department.  Aaron Schondorf, Brad Zweir, Ben Miron, Miki Hertog-Raz, and Soleyman Pierini worked the Chinese poles with impressive strength and agility.

The hoop diving works by being exceedingly clever with endlessly interesting tricks replacing outright jaw dropping skill usually associated with this kind of act. The troupe here consisted of Schondorf, Miron, Hertog-Raz, Chase Levy, Glenn Doyle, and Hannah Grove

And in the category of hula hoop spinning this one ends with one of the girls twirling her hoop around her clown nose.

There are also several novel and amusing juggling displays in the early section that begin to feel and look repetitive in the later going. The same might be said of the aerial displays, which, despite some novel rigging, look very much alike.

Throughout it all, no matter the type of act, the cast’s personal charm and enthusiasm always manages to carry us along. In the area of clowning,  Frederick Buford and Ruby Frank, a pair of clowns who play shy young lovers provide a through-line as their relationship develops  from wooing with a hat juggling routine to sharing a knock-about experience in the fun house.   A pantomimed roller coaster ride also works very well producing several amusing images.

Troy Wunderle’s own participation in all this is somewhat limited to a chase involving a pair of another recognizable habitue of the carnival lot, a pair of pick pockets.  But his greatest , most remarkable, and hilarious  success comes when he fearlessly  invites every kid in the audience ( at the performance I caught that would have been hundreds) into the ring with him for an extended romp through his fun house.  Talk about audience participation: no exclusions, no embarrassments, just the most irresistibly hilarious and affectionate work with kids I have ever seen.  By the time they get into the ring, the kids have all learned to identify with Troy during the previously noted chase through the audience.  He is the only one I know who can create and then control this kind of manufactured bedlam with hundreds of kids doing their own version of what is asked of them.  It is a true marvel of performance art.

The finale which features some of the most exciting and difficult acrobatics in the entire show brings the performance to a rousing finish just before we have Wunderle’s traditional quiet moment with the wooing clowns Buford and Frank.

It should be noted that the cast of 30 youngsters all under the age of eighteen had to learn the entire show which included learning not just the choreography but their actual acts themselves. They did it with the help of the following creative staff: Artistic director Troy Wunderle,  Creative director Mark Lonergan, Composer Peter Buffano, Music director Rich Greenblatt, Choreographer  Matt Williams, Set designer Maruti Evans, Costume designer Julie Michael and Lighting designer Sara Gosses and a number of coaches.  The contributions of all these talented people contributed to showcasing the cast to their best advantage.