The Passing Spectacle Vol. II, No. 4


Bill Irwin and David Shiner Reunited in New Show

 Old Hats, the off-Broadway show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner, brings Irwin back to where his career started, in clowning.  This represents quite a change of pace for a performer who has won a Tony Award  for his performance as George in a Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the longest speaking roles in contemporary theatre.  And it truly  certifies him to be the genius his MacArthur Fellowship had already identified him as.  The man, apparently, can do anything.  Yes, he also  sings and dances, plays the ukulele  and makes a very convincing woman, just a few of his many talents that are on display in Old Hats, a show that is part vaudeville, part clown entrée, part social satire and part slapstick comedy.

In contrast to Fool Moon in which the two clowns first teamed up on Broadway, this show is much more of a collaborative effort.  In the former show each of them took a turn presenting a solo act, and they teamed up but seldom.  Here they are almost always together, and the comedy is, as a result, doubled.  It’s rather like the promise of the old commercial for Doublemint Gum:  it doubles your pleasure.  They play off each other beautifully with neither getting the better of the other.

Together they open the show with some vaudeville style eccentric dancing and hat juggling.  It is here we get the first hint of the rubber joints and malleable faces they both possess and use to delightful comic effect.  This is performed on a traditional proscenium stage with a lighted box off to one side announcing the name of each new act.

Their particular and rare talent is given full play in a wonderful spoof of old age and the city’s transportation system.  The two are waiting for a train, and as they wait they interact somewhat in a way that causes them to literally stretch and shrink before our eyes.  Even their necks seem to grow longer.  At some point they begin exchanging medications, and that causes some of the changes in size.  Eventually it becomes all too obvious that one of those pills swallowed by Irwin is Viagra, and it performs as advertised, much to their surprise. I can’t help but wonder if these two satirists didn’t try to find a way of commenting on the drug’s warning about an erection lasting more than four hours.  There’s a joke worthy of Aristophanes embedded in a serious declaration.

Oh, by the way, the public transportation spoof comes at the very end when an announcement is made, presumably, of an approaching train.  The announcement is so garbled and fuzzy it is impossible to decipher where and when the train is approaching, leaving the two gentlemen thoroughly befuddled.

The sketch in which Irwin dons drag is a spoof of a magic act that is at best sleazy and at worst inept.  Both of those qualities are hilariously portrayed, but it is Irwin’s astonishingly effective female impersonation that really impresses.  Shiner plays the unctuous magician and Irwin his decorative assistant.

The show’s foray into slapstick results in a spoof of a political debate  in which nary a word is spoken, but the animosity level rises precipitously and soon devolves into various forms of physical assault, each more outrageous than the one before.  Through it all the combatants dazzling set of choppers are set in an immutable smile.

Irwin ventures forth alone in a brilliant satire of man’s fatal attraction to his electronic devices and a thoroughly welcome revival of his Italian waiter gag which dates back to his early days with the Pickle Family Circus, which ends with his disappearance inside a small trunk.

In Shiner’s first solo moment he is dressed and made up as a tramp or hobo clown, and it involves as much pathos as laughter, a delicate mix. Late in the show he reprises his greatest hit, the cowboy silent movie he shoots with the assistance of four people he has taken from the audience.  Before he makes his selections,  by the way,  he manages to tell us that he knows exactly how terrified we all are of the prospect of being chosen.  It all works out in a wonderful grand finale of the worst ham acting imaginable.  In addition to this extravagant exercise, Shiner sprinkles his performances with Irwin with delightful flashes of self-parody.

Shiner has added a few new details to this entrée and in many ways, at least on the night I saw the show, he produced nothing less than a star turn demonstrating with hilarious precision the exaggerated acting he hoped to pull from his recruited cast.

Interspersed between each of the comic turns, Nellie McKay and her quartet of musicians provide some charming musical interludes featuring McKay’s delightful original songs.  At one point McKay also gets involved with the two clowns for some lovely antics worthy of the music hall.

In all it is a most satisfying evening in which everything, the comedy, the music, the performances hit the mark, producing much laughter and many broad smiles.  It may be composed of some things that are old hat, but they have never been so welcome and enjoyable.

The show was directed by Tina Landau, and G. W. Mercier provided the essential costumes and scenic design.



 Bello is Bello Only More So Close Up

We’ve seen Bello up close before:  in the Big Apple Circus and Circus Sarasota, but rarely have we had such a concentrated dose of his special brand of humor as was recently on view on a stage in New York City.

Bello’s idea of showing us a good time is to first scare us out of our wits and then poke us in the ribs once we find he is perfectly safe and sound.   This brand of humor is best displayed on the sway pole.  There, he is just inches from the ceiling of the theater, the pole on which he is sitting, on the verge of sending him flying into space.  Before we know it however, he has managed to retrieve a balloon that has  gotten loose and is clinging to the ceiling, and he is slidding down the pole head first toward a happy landing, a smile wreathing his face, as if to say, “You see; it was all a joke.”

This special brand of humor arrives in concentrated form in Bello’s latest outing, a show of his own (or rather his wife’s devising) called—what else?—Bello Mania.  It played a spring time engagement in the jewel box-like New Victory Theater on 42nd St., in New York City, a more perfect setting for Bello’s humor,one is unlikely to find.  Bello Mania should become a spring time tradition there, delighting young and old with a show that is gentle and charmingly amusing, thanks to the type of humor described above.

The show is almost all Bello, all the time.  He is assisted by a master of ceremonies, Dave Cox, who is the perfect foil, his daughter Annaliese, and a talented young man, Zebulon Fricke. Both Bello and I discovered this young artist in St. Paul, Minnesota’s  Circus Juventas, and he fits in with this sytle of show very well.  When Bello is momentarily offstage, Annaliese performs a solo on the lyra and works with Fricke on the high wire.

But Bello is never any further than in the wings, waiting for a chance to somehow get into the act, and it is to his credit that when he does it never seems as if he is stealing the spotlight, merely expanding it to add a new twist to the other acts.

Once he gets on the high wire, for instance, he is scolded and told to sit down.  Ever obedient, he brings out a chair and shakily manages to get it under control on the wire, so he can do as he is told.  And with Annaliese he can’t refrain from displaying a bit of family pride.

Speaking of family, this is very much a family show, on several levels.  Prior to its start and at intermission we are treated to a trip through Bello’s family album showing him as a young boy as well as an international celebrity.  But Bello Mania is also a family show in that it is appropriate and immediately accessible to all ages.  No sly jokes for adults, no pandering to the kids.  Everyone gets the same Bello.

Several of Bello’s acts are things we have seen before: on the trampoline his near catastrophe turns into an invigorating flight of fancy: his William Tell entrée with a young woman from the audience always works well; and a teeterboard display with a youngster from the audience who plays his heroic accomplice is a charmer, as is the roll of  toilet paper spun into fantastical forms by a leaf blower.

But there are also moments we have not seen much of before if at all.  Bello has fun with a break- away bicycle and a game show contest which he sabotages so he won’t have to give away any prizes. The most surprising moment is an extended act with an invisible wonder dog and a series of props that almost has us believing in the mutt’s existence, and then just when we are sure it is all a fake, a real dog pokes his nose out at us as the blow-off.

And finally, there are lots and lots of balloons.  It all works together nicely, with good humor and nary a moment that lags, mixed with solid laughs here and there.  Characteristic of its easy-going nature is the way in which intermission is introduced.  The master of ceremonies enters and produces a ladder, at which point he reminds us to stick around for the ladder half of the show. Who could resist?

Pippin Puts the Circus on Broadway

It has been over thirty years since I saw and reviewed the original production of Pippin which was staged and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starred Ben Vereen.  With the current Broadway revival, the look of the show has changed considerably, the magic it unveils now is principally a product of the circus, but unfortunately a flash of circus skills, a remnant of Bob Fosse’s inimitable choreography, and a bland score and a set of caricatured figures do not make for a totally satisfying evening of theatre.  At its heart Pippin, the musical, is still a rather empty (as well as dated) morality play.

The show’s central theme deals with the existential issue of man’s desire to lead an extraordinary life.  In pursuit of that ideal the show’s title character, Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, finds war a disappointment, revolution unmanageable, and sex empty.  Neither he nor the show, it turns out, has found a way to deal with such heavy philosophical matters.  Most of the musical numbers are simplistic homilies about how to make the most of our time and find happiness, until it finally concludes that freedom and glory are fantasies man can never reach without sacrificing himself to the freedom and glory of death.

Although this hardly seems like the sort of material to brighten the musical stage, the show is staged as a play within a play and performed in a highly theatrical style, which is to say highly campy.  There is seldom a real need for the circus magic insofar as advancing the story. Although spectacularly produced, the circus acts fail to make any comment on the action and fall short of making what is happening  to the characters any more meaningful or approachable.  The one exception would be when the acrobatics illustrate most graphically what is going on with the widow Pippin has finally taken to bed. That is a wonderful physical illustration of what is happening under the bed covers.

But otherwise the show keeps pulling yet one more stunt out of its trunk of tricks that are self-serving circus, sideshow or music hall turns.  The character of Pippin’s Grandmother is a noteworthy example.  Played by Andrea Martin, she not only stops the show literally, but her number has the same effect on the show figuratively, as well.  It does not advance the plot; it is really a theatrical, if highly entertaining, stage wait.

As much as I love the circus and the kinds of thrills it is extraordinarily capable of providing, and as much as I am thrilled for the success Gypsy Snider, who created the circus acts, and as much as she has achieved in bringing them to a new stage and audience, I have to admit it is the theatrics (of which, of course, the circus is a major part) which win out here, not the story and certainly not the characters who more or less get lost in the razzle-dazzle, which at best  tends to blind one to what should be the main concern.   In keeping with the theatrical style, the show is played as if it were a comedy, even when the material of the second act does not want to be funny.

Seen for themselves, the circus skills are wonderfully executed providing a distinct wow factor missing in the rest of the show. Some standouts in this category include a quick-change dance performed by Charlotte d’Amboise, and an especially impressive rola bola display performed by Orion Griffiths.  In addition, a couple of special effects would make worthy tenants of Barnum and Bailey’s Black tent illusions from the late 19th century.

I am always amused and somewhat annoyed, frankly, by the wildly enthusiastic reception such demonstrations receive from a theatre audience unfamiliar with circus performances.  If they are so impressed why don’t they go to the real thing?

In addition to the circus acts, there are certain other distinct pleasures sprinkled throughout, for instance Fosse’s original choreography is recreated in a brilliant trio and channeled in the minimalist movement of another number.

I find I have not said anything about the performance of Patina Miller who plays the part of the Leading Player, originated by Ben Vereen.  That may be because despite her strong voice and stage presence and stylized movement, she does tend to get lost in all the highly energetic and flamboyant activity that surrounds her, and each of her appearances tends to come as something of a surprise.  It is easy to lose sight of the center of this production.



 Totem Revisited is Even More

Breathtakingly Beautiful Than on First Visit

When I first saw Cirque du Soleil’s Totem in Montreal shortly after its premiere in 2010 I called the production ravishingly beautiful, filled with gorgeous moving images, stunning stage pictures, humorous sight gags and visual jokes, teeming with technical wizardry.  Now, almost three years later, after the show has toured a good portion of the world before settling in New York City in the parking lot of Citi Field, there is no reason to alter that opinion.  If anything all of the things I found to praise in the show have simply gotten more breathtakingly efficient in terms of presentation.

What impressed me most this time, knowing what to expect from the show’s many technical surprises and wonders, is the beautifully considered staging of each of the individual acts.  Take for instance the roller skating duo, which once the presentation is discarded, is nothing more than a standard roller skating act that any self-respecting skating duo could produce.  But here it begins and ends with an exquisitely realized presentation that takes it into another realm altogether.

The foot juggling act of  twins Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova has a terrific ending, but what keeps us intrigued during its display of a fairly standard level of skill prior to its finish is the knock-out costumes and, of course, the beauty of the performers.  The Russian barre is one of the few acts in the show that is dazzling both for its level of skill and its presentation.

This time around I found the hoop dancing of Eric Hernandez far more interesting than on the initial visit, and the same was true of the performance of the devil stick manipulation by Ante Ursic, principally because the rhythms of the percussive musical accompaniment were so engaging. Surely the most unique act in the show is Greg Kennedy’s intriguing manipulation of bowls and balls. And what a relief to report that the clowning by Mythayla Usov and Pippo Crotti is actually amusing and totally in keeping with the rest of the show.

I was impressed at the premiere by Rosalie Ducharme and Louis-David Simoneau on the fixed trapeze.  Theirs is a wonderfully intricate act that combines a charming bit of lovers’ play mixed with some daring drops and catches. Oddly enough I thought this pair was still with the show until I consulted my press info and found that the act was now being performed by Guilhem Cauchois and Sarah Tessier.  What was confusing was that it seemed like the same act, but once I saw their names I knew  I had seen this new pair only last June in the annual show of the Canadian National Circus School, presumably doing the act I saw here.  In any case both pairs of aerial artists are charming and exciting in the same ways.   How lucky Cirque du Soleil is to have such a backlog of impressive performers that we are unable to tell them apart.

One detail of the act that I had not taken note of formerly is the entrance of the air mattress that is placed below the trapeze.  Here it is brought on as if it were a raft in which one might shoot the rapids, which it is cleverly disguised to mimic.

One change noted was the absence of the sensational perch pole act that was replaced by hand balancer  Pavel Saprykin.

Totem has been written and directed by Robert  Lapage, who is well known to opera audiences across town at the Met for his controversial staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  That same fascination with the possibilities of technological advances is very much on view here as well.  The contributions of Kym Barrett, the costume designer, and Pedro Pires, the image content designer, add immeasurably to the strong visual impact made by the extraordinary physical production.


Le Grand C is an Exhibition of Exqusite Acrobatics

Le Grand C is a French company of seventeen acrobats, six women and eleven men, who were trained in Lomme, France.  The company was founded in 2005 by Abdel Senhadji and Mahmoud Louertani.  It was visiting the United States for a brief stay at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd St., in New York City as part of a series from Ricochet Arts for All Ages.

Don’t let the fact that it is French or the fact that the extended opening sequence is performed in a gloomy half-light keep you from waiting out this bit of pretentiousness or you will miss an exhibition of remarkable acrobatic movements rendered by what the program describes as “impeccable technique.”   Here is a case where a company’s boast almost seems like an understatement, for understatement is definitely the modus operandi of this amazing group of acrobats.

In keeping with the lack of fuss and presentational hoopla with which it is all presented, the performance is given on a stage stripped down to the back wall, no masking of any kind concealing the wings and technical equipment, all rather au naturel.  The one concession to a presentational style is the slightly theatricalized street wear that the acrobats wear.

Otherwise it is acrobatics in its purest, most unadulterated form.  From the slow, maddening, self-conscious beginning, the company quickly begins to escalate the difficulty and excitement of its performance which includes building three and four high unsupported columns, all of which are achieved without any mechanical assistance of any sort.  These people do it the hard way, but they make it look, if not quite effortless, at least carefully controlled and executed with a scrupulous adherence to technique.

Their repertoire also includes a great deal of banquine tosses and catches that send principally the women of the company into breathtaking flights. There are also flashes of hand to hand balancing.  There is little solo work.  This is most definitely an ensemble effort.  Watching a stage full of acrobats perform variations on a theme is a most pleasing and at times exciting visual experience.

At times they get into these three and four high columns starting from a prone position.  Sometimes the elements of the columns are lifted into place as if riding human elevators.  No matter which of these structures or exercises in partnering was being performed, I was always struck with the graceful beauty of the dismounts.  These are affected with the same controlled effortlessness as the tricks themselves.

There is not a great deal of humor or comic relief in all this, but several members of the company, the men in particular, manage to project a rather tongue in cheek attitude that is most pleasing.  The one comic moment is a great sensation.  A human cannonball is shot from nothing more than a human cannon, and on one occasion it is aimed at the audienceAnother comic moment is produced by nothing more than a rugby scrum.

The company does forego a spectacular finish.  It had, by the time to wind down had come, provided more than its share of spectacle.  But the total effect achieved is one of great beauty mixed with flashes of excitement.    Le Grand C is to acrobatics what a symphony is to music.

 Australian Co. Pours Various Styles into a Unique Performance

Circa is a smallish company of acrobatic performers who hail from Brisbane, Australia.  They are presently touring in their production called Wunderkammer, which could be translated as “room of wonders” or “closet of wonders.”

From another perspective it might be translated as more of a dance program than a circus performance.  There are almost no acts per se.  There are moments when one performer is featured, more often than not, one of  the company’s three women, but essentially it is a series of quick passes across the stage interspersed with acrobatic moves—flips, somersaults, leaps, lifts.

One of the solos is an extended turn on a still trapeze, which, contrary to almost everything else in the show, goes on for much too long as it seems to keep repeating itself and lacks the kind of build we expect from a circus act, or even, for that matter, a solo dance in a ballet.  The same is true of the opening sequence in which a single woman standing in a shaft of light twirls a single hula hoop around her body for an extended time.  Later one of the men does a much briefer turn on the straps.

Whether engaged in acrobatic movements or dance, the performers exhibit little in the way of emotion or personality.  Even a young woman who does a strip on the trapeze, goes through the motions  betraying not the slightest emotion or connection to what she is doing.  In fact much of the performance is presented in a deadpan expression.  Sometimes that imparts a sly understated sense of humor, but mostly it is just dead.

Late in the evening two of the women engage in what might be called a cat fight for there is a rather tame bit of hair pulling, but for the most part they exhibit so little emotional involvement in what they are doing with each other it mainly comes across as yet another variation on the characteristically unusual ways the performers have found of  lifting  each other all night long.   There is a lot of partnering throughout the evening, both male to male and male to female.

The show’s try for a comedic touch involved several instances of swallowing long balloons that seem oddly out of keeping with the rest of the show, and seem mainly intended to gross us out while the performer remains completely blasé about the whole thing.   A dance on bubble wrap is certainly the most presentational moment in the show, but hardly the most  novel.    A strong man poses impressively, if impassively, while  holding five other company members.  But whatever the activity, it is all presented as a subtle put-on.

There is also a great deal of dressing and undressing in the show, as sometimes the men work bare-chested in long pants or in trunks, the women in the same  variety of outfits.   In the end the entire company disrobes while lined up at the front of the stage, peeling down to posing straps for the men and bikinis for the women. “Why stop there?” I wondered.  If it is to reveal the human body that has been  twisting and turning, and jumping and lifting all evening long, doesn’t it make sense that they should have gone down to complete nakedness, revealing their well toned, beautifully muscular bodies  to the fullest?  Otherwise it seems a bit of a cop out to me.

A variety of popular and classical musical pieces is used throughout the show, and they work very well with the action, so well I thought they must have been chosen before the acts were created.  I learned later that the opposite was true, so kudos to whoever chose the music.

The company, which was founded in 2006, consists of Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Daniel Crisp, Robbie Curtis, Casey Douglas, Brittannie Portelli, and Kimberly Rossi,   Artistic director is Yaron Lifschitz. The company has three units each composed of the same mix of four men to three women, touring the world.

The company describes its performance as  “an adult cabaret of the senses, a unique, theatrical blend of circus, cabaret and vaudeville,  a celebration of the expressive possibilities of the human body at its extremes.”   And surely there are indeed elements of all these performance styles involved.  What matters most is the way in which they are presented.

I should add  a bit of a post script here.  My friend Hovey Burgess, whose opinions I respect and whose knowledge of the circus I admire, is a huge devotee of this company, especially after seeing them work in Paris this past winter. He was particularly impressed by a  hand balancing duet on blocks that keep moving along the floor, but when I saw the show, this act was staged so far downstage that  the footlights, which are used throughout the show, obscured my view.

I suppose the lesson here is that there is no accounting for taste.  Opinions will vary from person to person.  Rare is there unanimity of judgment of any artistic venture.