Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 1

Never One to Take Itself Seriously,

 Circus Oz is as Charming as Ever 


I can’t think of a circus company that takes itself less seriously than Australia’s Circus Oz.  Their comic take on the world is captured in the first image as the curtain rises on its latest production From the Ground Up, which played the month of December at the New Victory Theater on East 42nd St.  in NYC.  The grandest of grand pianos—one that stretches clear across the stage—is  lowered into view as it is being played by Ania Reynolds, a city-scape seen in the distance.  Once the piano hits the stage it is promptly dismantled and part of it is transformed into a giant I-beam that fits right into the show’s physical look—a construction site, dominated by a giant crane.  Judging by some of the art work that is used to promote the show, the inspiration for all this was those remarkable iconic photographic images of a gang of steel workers nonchalantly taking their lunch-break sitting on an I-beam girder, their feet dangling in mid-air many stories above terra firma.  That image perfectly captures the insouciance of these Australian circus artists.

Shane Witt

But that irreverence masks a seriousness that is at the heart of their dedication to advancing and strengthening their acrobatic and circus skills.  Several of the performers in this tight-knit ensemble are relative new-comers to circus, some having been recruited from the aboriginal people of Australia.  Yet their work already has that characteristic daffy sense of humor that makes attending one of the company’s performances such a treat.

We know at once we are among friends from the pre-show greetings several members of the company spread throughout the audience, taking the time to engage in real conversations and providing an introduction to the delightfully off-center characters with whom we are about to engage.  These are not performers who adopt a kind of passive-aggressive distance from the audience we find to be so much in style in contemporary circuses nowadays.  This is a company that is always fun to spend time with, in part because they seem to be having so much fun themselves, and that kind of delight in performing is infectious.

This is very much an ensemble company with several of the cast and musicians involved in almost every act.  In the first half a lot of time is spent lollygagging about, as they try to horn in on each other specialties even when they are supposed to be helping.

Mike Finch, the company’s artistic director and show director, related to me an old Australian show biz saying, which he facetiously suggested might have some relevance here: “If you can’t be good, be funny, if you can’t be funny, be fast.”  This show is all those things at one time or another, and finally in its second half, all of them at once.

The genial Ghenoa Gela, an indigenous Aussie, serves as hostess to this casual party, making us feel immediately comfortable in the presence of these people who don’t look anything like you would expect a circus performer to look.  We are quickly treated to a series of low-key tricks, which are often, more than they seem, given the off-handedness with which they are tossed off.

There is a delightfully amusing bit of foot juggling by Hazel Bock, who also plays the trumpet in the on-stage band and turns up in the second half juggling rings.  Stevee Mills mounts a tight-rope set up on that omnipresent girder, which, as it is raised in the air, becomes in effect a high low-wire (a description that could only make sense with Circus Oz).  At bit later, one of the show’s riggers, Chad Albinger, emerges out of the shadowy wings and works on a Chinese pole, his slides in various positions, unexpectedly breath-taking.

Hazel Bock

Albinger, by the way, is one of those people who has developed from being a nearly invisible technician to one of the company’s most poised and skillful performers.  In addition he also built what looks like the giant claw that one would find on the end of a crane that here is the nest for drummer Bec Matthews’, impressive mid-air solo.

Flip Kammerer

Albinger also works as the counterweight to Flip Kammerer’s strap act.  Watching him take her into the air and then back to earth is easily the most interesting part of the act, which comes about as close as anything in the show to being a bit self-consciously arty.  Kammerer more than makes up for that in her appearance in the second act in which she attempts to demonstrate and thereby generate sales for her “Fantaysia’s Fitness Videos.”  This segment of the show is easily the most hilarious and is also breath-taking in quite another way.  Her disasters, near and total, produce the sort of laughs that jolt the body forward in convulsed spasms of guffaws.

Luke Taylor and Flip Kammerer

Another of the show’s comic highlights is the performance of the self-assured magician played by Jeremy Davies.  Almost every one of his tricks goes very badly, some spectacularly so and some that work spectacularly despite all the comic foul-ups.  A running gag involves repeatedly trying to identify a card pulled from a deck by an audience member before the show proper has gotten underway.  Davies’ assistant is the wonderfully deadpan Neville, (Luke Taylor) who also adds to the comic effect of Fataysia as well.

Taylor is featured in the spot just before intermission which is usually reserved for an act that will leave us totally amazed and eager for more in the second half.  Taylor’s specialty is cigar box juggling, a specialty that one would not expect to fill the requirements listed above,  but the act is so cleverly staged and pulls off such an unexpectedly dazzling conclusion that it fills the bill perfectly.

Mason West is the company’s daredevil specialist.  In the first half he works up to five cylinders on a rola bola and in the second half climbs a sway pole for some derring-do.

The second half of the show is paced much more brightly, as it opens with a comic casting act of unbounded enthusiasm.  Later, as other featured acts take the stage, various members of the company, acting as assistants keep getting carried away with themselves, principally Dale Woodbridge,  an indigenous performer recently recruited from the company’s talent spotting and development program aimed at aboriginal performers.  When not stealing focus from other people’s acts he does some baton twirling and various eccentric dances. He is the company’s newest member, having only joined out this past June, but he obviously has found himself at home in the company style.

In the midst of all this, Shane Witt casually wanders in and out dressed as a angel helping out wherever he can, usually to comic effect.  He is really the featured acrobat of the company, performing a triple and a back salto off the teeterboard  to a three-high column without the use of a lunge.  Beside being the lead acrobat, he is also the trainer of the group acrobatic acts, one of which closes the show.

The closing act employs a teeterboard on which the traditional techniques associated with this apparatus are performed as well as those used with the Korean plank in which partners at either end of the board take turns  being catapulted aloft before returning to the board after a variety of spins and saltos and sending the person at the other end sailing.  In both instances the display is fast and exciting, given the height and complexity of the flights and the danger of the landings.  Here Kai Johnson-Pedy comes into his own.  Another recent recruit he is being worked into a number of acts, first as an assistant and here as both base and flyer.

The company is composed of ten acrobats, three musicians and a couple of riggers, a merry band indeed, all of whom seem accomplished in a number of specialties, most delivered with a comic edge that is perfectly delightful.




How Peter Became Pan


The play Peter and the Star Catcher, is a prequel to the story of Peter Pan.  It tells of how a nameless orphan came to be Peter Pan, inhabit the island of Neverland, and forge a partnership as perpetual adversaries with the nefarious pirate who was to become Captain Hook.  Theirs was to be the never-ending struggle of good versus evil, played out in comic terms.  Even before he became the buffoon-like Hook, the pirate known as Black Stashe was very much a comic figure, not to be taken too seriously.

The show won five Tony Awards when it opened last season  and was near the end of its Broadway run when I caught up with it.  I was anxious to see it because I was already familiar with the Story Theatre style of presentation it employs, and which I first encountered as a Broadway reviewer back in 1970, when Paul Sills introduced the concept to New York audiences.  Its performance style is a combination of narration and dramatization.  It uses a minimum of props and scenery in highly imaginative ways that are always clever, amusing and often delightfully surprising.  The acting style is always exaggerated and highly physical.  In other words it was a style that is, in some ways, closely related to clowning.  Surely Matthew Saldivar’s performance as Black Stashe, with his painted moustache and bulging, leering eyeballs is a not too subtle take-off on Groucho Marx.  But his performance is not entirely physical.  Black Stashe is a bit of a fumbler when it comes to language scoring more near misses than hits.  The performances of the supporting cast are often clownish as well.  The ensemble of bedraggled mermaids that opens act two is a cross between Bette Midler and Lou Jacobs in drag.

Another lure for me was that the production was directed by Roger Rees who starred as the title character in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby back in 1981, the last time the Story Theatre techniques were used to maximum effect on Broadway.  That marvelous production ran eight and a half hours in two sittings, and like Peter and the Star Catcher was often magical in its use of this style of theatrics.

Peter,  however, takes some time for the fun to kick into high gear.  This is, after all, a story of an orphan boy who was so little thought of no one bothered to give him a name.  The first act is rather much a back and forth between two ships that will eventually land all the story’s principals on an island that will become known as Neverland.  One of the three principal characters is Molly who will grow up to become the mother of Wendy.  She is beautifully played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who manages to be both touching and outrageously comic as she translates a message sent to her in Norse Code. (This is not a misprint.  It is the basis of a hilariously extended joke.)  In addition to the boy, played by Adam Chandler-Berat, and Black Stashe the first act concerns itself rather much with a pair of identical trunks that are critical to the story’s denouement.

As if to confirm my suspicions that this show was related to circus and clowning, the music played during the entire intermission period sounded like the rags that often accompanied the clown walk-arounds,  creating a very circusy atmosphere.

A wonderful bit of clowning business involves a strange fruit discovered on the island all the characters find themselves stranded.  Its scent was of seductive sweetness, but its exterior was prickly and seemingly implacable.  How to get to that fruit?   Licking turned out to be a painful and (pardon the pun) “fruitless” try, as Jason Ralph discovered much to his dismay the night I saw the show.  A bit of serendipitous business finally slices the fruit in half in mid-air and the pineapple is discovered.  This may very well be a pre-quel to Dole plantation.

Anyone familiar with the Peter Pan/Captain Hook tale knows of the existence of the crocodile, here referred to as Mr. Grim. His depiction is a triumph of imagination over budget restrictions, which is what makes the style of story-telling a continual round of delightful surprises.  Along with Rees the show was directed by  Alex Timbers, with movement by Steven Hoggett.

Matthew Saldivar as Black Stache who will become Captain Hook and Kevin Del Aguilar as Smee

There were many more children in the audience the night I attended than one usually finds in a Broadway theatre.  Although they would enjoy the physicality of the story-telling devices, much of the show may be a bit too sophisticated for youngsters.  There is in addition to exaggerated acting, lots of verbal wit: Stashe’s puns, and the Fighting Prawns use of Italian culinary expressions with a double meaning.  The nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, gleefully tosses about numerous naughty double entendre and coyly suggestive invitations. Rick Elice’s clever script is also replete with unexpected and anachronistic references, but the plot twists that ultimately bring us to the familiar Peter Pan legend always comes as something of a surprise, and do not seem at all contrived.  Black Stashe’s coup d’theatre, which he plays to the hilt, comes, for example, when he loses his left hand in a most unexpected manner.

Mrs. Bumbrake, in order to keep Molly as the only female in the cast, is played by Arnie Burton. Teddy Bergman is the Prawn King and the fight and movement captain.  There is plenty of both in this very physical production that basically ignores realistic scenery and acting, and asks the audience to use its imagination for maximum rewards.

As it turns out Peter was not a boy who refused to grow up.  Having never had a childhood, he was compensated for that deprivation by fate with perpetual youth.



Putting a World Away Within  Reach

 (At least financially)

The thing about film is that, in contrast to live entertainment, one could never be sure what he was seeing was a result of true human daring and skill or a trick of the camera.   So what then is one to make of a film that features circus performers, whose tricks are the result of their own skill and artistry?   About the only truly cinematic trick of Cirque du Soleil’s World’s Away is the fact that it is filmed in 3D, and even that is used with amazing restraint, allowing us to appreciate the depth of the image rather than having arrows or other objects hurled in our directions, inducing us to duck.  There is almost none of that in this film.  Instead what we get is a succession of circus arts culled from the various Cirque productions that are on display in the permanent theatres constructed for them in Las Vegas.

Having seen each of the productions from which the acts are selected, I can attest to their authenticity.  There is no camera tricks except those that provide a unique physical perspective of the action.  The human artists are doing the acts they actually do in a live performance, sometimes with the advantage of extreme close-ups.  Despite these advantages one still tends to miss the immediacy of live performance.  This is an irreplaceable asset that is realized from seeing a circus performance performed live that no film technique can ever truly duplicate or even fully suggest.

Nonetheless the effect of the close-up or roving camera brings us into the acts and presents them in a way that is often strikingly beautiful and always impressive.  The various excerpted acts are held together by a very simple plot that never gets in the way of the real subject matter: the artistry of the circus.   The overall effect, however, can at times be rather dark and even frightening.  This is definitely not one for kids.

What the 3D camera does is to provide a wonderful sense of what the theatrical setting is like in all of the shows excerpted.  For those who have not seen Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, the scope and size of the shows must be impressive.

The shows from which the various acts are drawn include Mystere, O, Ka, Zumanity, Viva la Elvis (now closed), and Love, the Beatles show.    These excerpts provide an introduction to the most spectacular work of the Canadian circus at a price that is the merest fraction of what it would cost to see even one of these shows, no less all six.  The film, therefore, is a good introduction to CDS and if you can’t afford to see its work live in Las Vegas, it is a satisfactory taste of what the excitement is all about.

The film has been created by some of the top names in the industry.  It has been produced by James Cameron whose previous work includes Avatar and Titantic.  It has been directed by Andrew Adamson, known for  Shrek and The Chronicles of Nardia.  It is being distributed by Paramount Pictures, which, of course, made The Greatest Show on Earth.  It seems unlikely we will see a more tastefully and artfully produced film based on circus acts in the current cinema.