Passing Spectacle Vol. IV, No. 5

Circus Flora Doubles Down on Comedy

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In Circus Flora’s previous year’s production, The Pawn, Adam Kuchler emerged as the surprise star, walking away with the show in a performance that I hailed as the perfect meeting of character and actor. So the new Flora artistic leadership (its founder David Balding passed away just before the start of last season’s run) decided, quite understandably, to double down on this gift that had fallen into its lap. This year’s production One Summer on Second Street gives audiences at least twice as much Kuchler as the season before, but this turns out to be too much of a good thing, and as is so often the case, more turns out to be less, less effective. Although Kuchler parades a succession of amusing props during the course of the show, his unique style remains a constant, ultimately seeming a bit over the top and more than a bit repetitive.

Cast as Second Streets’ handyman Kuchler is certainly the go-to guy when things bog down as they often seem to do here, thanks to some less than thrilling acts and a plot line that means to show us how the neighborhood of the show’s title changed from one of suspicion, hatred and animosity toward animals as well as humans into one, big happy family.

In order to achieve that Cecil MacKinnon, the show’s director and narrator is required to ask us, without a trace of embarrassment,   to suspend our disbelief. That is something audiences normally do willingly at any theatrical experience, so when you have to ask for it, you know you are in trouble.

The opening introduces us to the denizens of Second St., who turn out to be the perfectly cast St.Louis Arches, street urchins whose play consists of wildly enthusiastic tumbling and acrobatics, including a display of the dangerous and difficult banquine style of throws and catches, producing in the process an equally enthusiastic response from the audience. Despite the act’s length it is easily the most joyous part of the production, and coming at the beginning as it does, the show is hard pressed to achieve that level of involvement again. The Arches’ director and coach is Jessica Hentoff, and their appearance is one of the two or three acts in the show that truly thrill and delight.

Another is provided by the Daring Jones Duo. After a suggestion that there might be a Hatfield/McCoy style feud brewing in the neighborhood goes nowhere, David Jones and Blaze Birge are introduced as the neighborhood’s landlord and his lady love. They quickly ascend to a single trapeze on which they work a series of twisting entanglements that are executed with a wry humor that gives the act a charming edginess despite its apparent danger and innovation.

The third act I found of more than usual interest was a pair calling themselves Duo Tux, Terrance Robinson and Laurie Marchand. Robinson is a graduate of both the Arches and the Quebec circus school. They replaced another pair of Hentoff’s prodigies during the second half of the show’s run. I have previously seen and reviewed that act when the two young men, Sydney Iking Bateman and Melvin Diggs appeared with the Seven Finger production of Cuisine and Confessions.   By the time I saw the show they had left to join the Seven Fingers on its international tour.

Robinson and Marchand play a pair of newlyweds whose playful adagio is intended to illustrate the early stages of a couple’s getting to know each other, this particular conflict centering around who gets to wear the coat in the family. The fun is in the manner in which each takes it from the other. It is both cute and thankfully ceaselessly clever and always amusing.

The rest of the production offers Mayya Panfilova’s domestic cats in an act that looks like every other such offering. But there is no denying that cats, at least of the alley kind seem natural inhabitants of such a scenario, as do birds, or at least pigeons. Panfilova’s cast are much too pampered looking to be lurking about alleys and Helena Valla’s white doves are similarly too refined to pass as scavengers, but they both provide an initial if momentary surprise when they appear.

The Wallendas were also back in a somewhat truncated version of the troupe with Tino’s ankle in a cast. As a consequence their performance is not nearly as dazzling as is usually the case, but then why need it be when a standing ovation is inevitable?

One of the biggest disappointments for me was the Alanian Riders, a troupe of two women and a single man who gave a rather rudimentary display of Cossack-style riding. Flora’ signature piece, the big juggle, always manages to raise the energy level of the performance. Seeing the entire company in the ring, tossing clubs back and forth is a sure-fire delight.

The show closes with the wall trampoline of Quatuor Bounce. This act goes on for much longer than it needs to as it is increasingly repetitive. It is also a case, insofar as this skill is concerned, of too little too late. We’ve been seeing better for some time now. The most interesting aspect of this presentation is its musical accompaniment, a jazz arrangement that allows the band led by Janine Del’Arte to jam away. The introductory material in the program suggests that the show is set to the urban sights and sounds of the Jazz Age. This is the only suggestion of that era to actually make it into the program and is most welcome.

I have a feeling this was one of those shows that the original creative team couldn’t quite figure out where they wanted to go with it, as witness the added writer and creative consultant, perhaps a case of too many cooks. In the past MacKinnon was the solo creative force in consultation with David Balding, now departed. Check out the addition credits below.

The creative credits include the following: Artistic director Jack Marsh, Theatre director Cecil MacKinnon, Resident composer Miriam Cutler, Musical director and arranger Janine Del’Arte, Scenic designer Sarah Pearline, Costume designer Nina Reed, Lighting designer Jesse AlFord, writers Cecil MacKinnon and Jack Marsh, creative consultant Amanda Crockett, dramaturg Hovey Burgess.

 

Circus Smirkus Serves Up a Delicious Dinner

The 2015 tour of Circus Smirkus aptly named Bon Appétiti! is in fact a smorgasbord, a circus feast that ranges from the clowns’ crudités to the delicate pastries of the aerialists, with a nod in between to just about every cuisine ever concocted by a creative chef.

It all begins with what I must say is the most effective opening number I have seen in any circus in a very long time. It has been brilliantly choreographed by Matt Williams, whose Broadway credits are unmistakable. It is a fairly long number and one that incorporates a good bit of tumbling and acrobatics, but it never meanders or fails to keep building in excitement. This it does by continually topping itself by creating new and inventive patterns and styles of movement. The effect is that of looking into a kaleidoscope and finding oneself unable to stop turning and shaking up the ingredients to create new images. One of the marvels of Williams’ work is that in the midst of all the excitement everyone involved looks as if he is a trained dancer.   What a way to get a show started.

The various cuisines of the world provide the excuses for changes in presentational styles and costuming, a delightfully successful way of wringing the most variety out of the show’s theme. The German sausage makers evolve into a rope jumping act that turns out to be as delicious as a salty pretzel and beer. In a scene suggestive of fine dining people from that audience are seated at tables as four girls twirl above them in an aerial display using a chandelier. Then there is the elegantly inscrutable Chinese ladies who dress a very fine diabolo display.

Occasionally the action takes us backstage into the kitchen, as for instance when Troy Wunderle, who happens to be the show’s artistic director, teams up with Alec McGowen to present a riveting ball bouncing routine that is absolutely brilliant. Wunderle is back in the kitchen at his dish washing chores again later in the show out of which grows an enchanting soap bubble blowing spectacle.

Circus Smirkus is always impressive in the way it turns objects related to theme into clever props and innovative acts. Another dash of spice is added in a Spanish flavored unicycle act featuring Wesley Williams and Lyla Goldman, Leah and Anna Zuckerman.

A hula hoop display turns into an ensemble number, the participants Lola Picayo, Maedya Kojis, Emily Wunderle, Sarah Tiffin, Ben Kaufman and Ivan Jermyn dressed as (what else?) Hawaiian islanders.

The triple trap featuring Lyla Goldman, Sam Landa and Cheya Potter is notable for its innovative tricks. An impressive performance by Owen Fairchild on the corde lisse is one of the few acts presented as a solo act. Lola Picayo and Ariana Wunderle offer a lovely display on a pear-shaped aerial hoop.

The clown contingent, Sam Ferlo, Liam Gundlach, Alec McGowen, Sarah Tiffin, Sawyer Oubre and Ivan Jermyn, is featured prominently throughout, as food and kitchen utensils provide plenty of invitations for comedy ranging from pizza pie tossing to the inevitable classic custard pie routine in which the victim is always the wrong person, all of it nicely and gratifyingly done.

As it turns out the second half of the program becomes rather clown heavy, with a series of entrees that look more or less alike. The problem is that the show tends to rely on ensemble work rather than featured acts presented by one or two persons. So the number of clown entrees has to carry more weight, but I was always impressed with the endearing manner in which the clowns related to the kids in the audience. But then who can complain about ensemble work when it includes a huge club passing routine that involves just about everyone in the show and brings the energy back up to a boil?

One can’t help coming away from this feast pleasantly filled. The physical production, the costumes, props and setting, are all very well imagined and brought to life in a delightful way, and the essential and always charming music by Tristan Moore bounces us along from course to course without ever allowing our appetite to flag.

The production credits include, in addition to Wunderle and Moore, Jesse Dryden, creative director; Matt Williams,choreographer, Elisha Schaefer, scenic and prop design, Julie Michael, costume designer, Anthony Powers, lighting designer, and Jason Eckenroth, sound designer, all of whose contributions make a significant impact on the total meal.

See https://xeaza.smugmug.com/Circus-Smirkus/2015/Bon-Appetit/  for photo gallery.

 

Chicago  Festival 2015 Has Much to Offer

by Kim Campbell

Chicago’s Contemporary Circus Festival has a mission that invites inclusion and collaboration between artists, of various nations, youth and all circus disciplines. The artists that appeared in the festival this year really demonstrated that. CCCF hopes to deepen the American perception of the art form of circus, and to give circus artists the opportunity to participate on a global playing field.

To this end, there were eleven different circus productions over a five day period with multiple shows on the same date, as well as a professional development and youth workshops called master classes. There was even a series of talks organized by Circus Now which invited panelists to discuss topics of importance in the circus community. There was a youth showcase run by the American Youth Circus Organization with over fifty youths performing.

What resulted was a week of circus acts and collaborations, discussions, celebrations and development for fans and performers alike. I had the pleasure of attending seven of the shows at three venues. I also tried out a social juggling master class and attended a CirQthrough! panel discussion about social circus. While I experienced a strong urge to see and do everything at the festival, it was not possible to do so and maintain my other responsibilities, so like most circus fans, I had to choose carefully. My top three choices from the festival were Tossed and Found, Knee Deep and Pedal Punk.

Tossed & Found; A Classic & Contemporary Paradox

It may seem strange calling Peter Davison a contemporary circus artist.   In Tossed and Found he was clearly dressed in a 1920’s era tuxedo and top hat throughout most of his one man show. Davison may be best known as a juggler but that description only puts him in a box that he literally bursts forth from at the beginning of the show, since very little of his show consists of his throwing and catching three to five items as one might expect in a juggling show.

There were no balls or juggling clubs on stage. Instead, Davison created a setting that evoked the silent film era of Buster Keaton’s physical comedy and embraced the Fred Astaire era of dance while maintaining a flow of amusing interactions with the mundane trappings of the world around him. Peter’s music took us back to a simpler era as he played with familiar objects like boxes, an umbrella, hats, a chair, a newspaper and bike tires.

The familiarity of such objects made us empathize with him more, as for instance when a table and chair began to give him some trouble, or a few boxes became difficult to wrangle. It also helped us share his triumph more keenly when playing around with and mastering the manipulation of a few trash bags or bike tires, which became moments of transcendent joy.

Juxtapositioning everyday objects with manipulation skills and choreography somehow transcended the concept of juggling and made the show more a story about one man’s heroic adventures, even though those adventures were mainly interacting with the physical world. One piece in Tossed and Found in particular stuck out as poignant.

While Davison was enjoying emptying a box of hats and playing the roles each hat suggested: cowboy, gumshoe, and country boy, he came across a World War I helmet and uniform which he put on to explore the life of a soldier. During the moving dance scene that explored the hardships of warfare, he came across a love letter from home in his pocket and a touching dance and paper juggling number ensued.

At first glance, the subject matter and the eras Davison explores would seem to fall into the category of traditional circus, but like his juggling act, he defies categorization. The storyline that he has so artfully crafted is not about celebrating technical prowess but about the character making a connection with the world he lives in. Although that connection seems small, the power it has to transform him is large and the promise of that remains with us as we experience his world. Like contemporary circus, Davison is using his circus skills to point out not the feat but the merits of the story. He does so with the grace of a dancer, the heart of a comedian and the hands of a great juggler.

Knee Deep Casus Circus Delves in the Deep End

“Interesting things are coming out of Australia!” It is something I have heard people say about circus over the years. An Australian troupe called Casus proved this assertion with their four-person cast and simple set that included a half dozen eggs, a rope, a silk, a hoop, a Go-Pro camera, a trapeze and a whole lot of muscle memory. But what was astounding about Knee Deep, beyond one cast member’s ability to rotate his shoulder 360 degrees, was the trust and strength of their relationships, which is what their show conveyed so clearly, even as they astounded the audience with their technical abilities.

The show began with an act of trust in physics as Kali Retallack walked across a box of eggs without breaking them. Dressed sparsely and in earth tones, the cast continued to develop that theme of trust as the action and complexity of their performance built. They made shapes, walked up each other’s bodies, wound their way around arms and legs, climbed into three-highs and swung from ropes and trapeze together while sharing meaningful moments of eye contact and also the possession of one egg that remained intact until they agree to break it in a bowl as proof that it was real. Eventually another egg provided the comic relief and became an object of adoration and competition among them as they all vied for an opportunity to possess it, trying to woo the egg with examples of their physical prowess, and also cutting down and tricking their competitors with exciting maneuvers.

Eventually the egg was forgotten, as eggs often are, and the performance really took off, unencumbered by any objects, into a fast paced demonstration of what seemed like every physical move humans hadn’t yet discovered until Kali Retallack, Jake Silvestro, Jesse Huygh and Natano Faanana demonstrated them. They moved their feet and hands with fascination, as if adjusting action figures into new forms. Kali Retallack contorted her body through a tiny ring. Natano Faanana touched on his Samoan roots with body rhythmic clapping and slapping called Fa’ataupati that became contagious and morphed into a dynamic acrobatic slapping dance which had a natural wavelike rhythm.

There were quiet and contemplative moments, like when Jesse Huygh constructed an origami crane in front of a GoPro projection of it, while Natano drew the same crane with its folds, or when the four companions climbed on a trapeze together, reaching and winding around each other in an upward flow and supporting each other as they climbed.

It ended as it began, with the forgotten eggs return and a two high while standing upon them. The unconventional, modern and sparse look of Knee Deep is riveting. With a good mix of thoughtful acts, humor and high energy all revolving loosely around the central theme of trust, exploring human capability and collaboration, it really speaks to the core of what circus is all about.  

Pedal Punk Rolls Up

Cirque Mechanics’ Pedal Punk has an elaborate steam punk style set meant to emulate a bike shop, while really concealing trusses and rigging of every imaginable sort and all on wheels. The cast of Pedal Punk consists of ten versatile bike shop employees and/or customers who then proceed to astound us with what they can do with wheel-based contraptions.

Jan Damm, the head bike shop mechanic, steals the show with his easy charm and dreamy curiosity. We follow him through every day work challenges, such as getting a lady or gentleman customer the right sized wheel on which they can perform Cyr wheel tricks, and bigger challenges, such as squeezing in his amazing diabolo and rolla bolla acts when business is slow. He is beleaguered with interesting visitors, like a pesky shop assistant who has a bike with square wheels, and customers who can’t keep their hands off of the merchandise.

Beyond this, the plot does not go, but the vaudevillian scenes that the antiquated men’s costumes and the retro style steam punk inventions evoke are enough to keep us engaged. The pace is fast, with lyra, trick bike, Cyr wheel, hooping, diabolo, hand balancing, unicycle, contortion, acro, Chinese pole, rolla bolla, ropes, and even wall trampoline making an appearance as the ten well-rounded performers show an impressive array of abilities, all cleverly under the guise of exploring machinery.

For example, a couple arrives at the momentarily abandoned shop and sees a sparkling blue bike which they race to procure, only to find it splits into two pieces, one half is a unicycle and the other half is handlebars which fit in to a base for hand balancing. Then the hijinks begin.

Perhaps the most comic moment in the show was when Jan Damm breaks down the fourth wall and plucks a volunteer right from the audience. He brings the man onstage to outfit him with the correct bike. Neither the tiny clown bike nor the unicycle seem to work, so he settles on a stationary bike, which leads to the funniest stationary bike race in recorded history and involves Jan being left unseated in the dust, and it’s all through the magic of circus stunts.

During the finale, the music and action build until the young athletes were hanging on the rigging, dropping into the wall trampoline and mixing it up with trapeze skills and trampoline drops in shocking new ways. All around them the rest of the performers were leaping, stretching, hanging and contorting on their chosen apparatus in a moment of chaos and catharsis while the whole rig slowly spun, propelled by silent bowler-hatted men on penny-farthing styled wheels built in to the trusses.

Pedal Punk is an interesting mix of what works so well in traditional circus; the pageantry, the clear boundaries between circus specialties in acts, the high energy and what works in contemporary circus; the exploration of a theme, a style, a character and a story within the context of those forms. In crafting that mix, Chris Lashua, Cirque Mechanics’ founder and a German Wheel artist displays his love of all things mechanical in this bold production. In doing so he has elevated the show’s potential to that of a long-running production that could stand on its own in any major city.

 

Summer Circus Keeps the City’s Parks Jumping

by Cindy Marvell

A partner can mean twice the awe onstage, twice the laughs, yet not always four times the props. Several contemporary circus duos illustrate these aptly entertaining friendships as part of Circus Now’s Summerstage series.

With a name that belies their gentle, disarming opening, The Incredible Incredible, aka. Matthew “Poki” McCorkle and Justin Therrien, weave imitation and interactive hattery into an entertainment called Palindrome. A hat-on-cloth illusion captures the fancy of the audience especially of the young folk having an out-of-this-world day in their local park.

Lucas Hicks on accordion makes this a trio as the music upholds and almost prods the action, an invisible prop. Shoelace drama yields poi skills and a suitcase mime sequence seems inevitable.

Magic emerges when Poki picks up a mini hoop for a solo piece. He is known for expertise with multiple mini-hoops and offers workshops for those wishing to master or avoid impediment with the form. In this floating sequence of isolations reminiscent of Moschen, McCorkle brings out the poetic quirkiness of the form. As the winner of a “Hoopie Award” and as a Moisture Festival performer Poki’s willingness to mix insider skills with performance values creates theatricality.

Returning to earth in the Summerstage show he shares a meal with his partner. What would sound (or silent) nutrition be without a fork in the nose and a fully engaged volunteer? Part of local theater is getting it out there and an unpredictable portion of the crowd got into it. The Incredible duo will next take its production to the Oregon Country Fair and the Edmonton Fringe. www.incredibleincredible.com

Magmanus Company took Brooklyn’s Pier 1 by storm as the 4th of July approached, bringing acrobatic tricks, flying clubs, and just enough sweaty goofiness to cause a bit of controversy in New York City. Magmanus duo hails from Sweden with collaborators Manu Tiger of France and Magnus Bjoru of Norway. The relationship illustrates many complexities such as teeterboard transactions, backflip buffoonery, and juggling gyrations. These intrepid performers proved they could catch a number of high-flying objects or catch each other if necessary. The duo presents teeterboard as stunt theater rather than as a traditional act. This includes some comedic undressing en l’air.

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Lots of fun, but what thrilled the audience were the planned close calls: a performer jumping over another with legs fully extended or seeming to flip over the statue of liberty conveniently located in the background. The rustle-tustle energy of the pair infused the antics and kept the surprises coming. A volunteer as a type of judge seemed intrigued.

Magmanus staged a similar show at Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival in June and is in the process of readying an international tour. For dates to come, including Montreal and arts centers in New York, check http://www.magmanus.com/calendar/.

Coming to Summerstage: the Gizmo Guys, Allan Jacobs and Barrett Felker. These shows will be in parks around Manhattan, where the duo is based. Jacobs, club swinging re-inventor, and Felker, numbers guru, both individual IJA champions, meet in a place of suspended gravity and share their innovative collaboration with tossery, mimicry, and props that know what to do ranging from hats to cigar boxes. And maybe four times the clubs.