Passing Spectacle Vol. V – No. 2

Old Hats is as Good as New

Bill Irwin and David Shiner revive old favorites

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Clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner are up to their old tricks. Their show is not called Old Hats for nothing.  Much of what they do in the current version of the show is familiar material, which  happily bears a second viewing.  I suspect one could sit through the show many times and not tire of watching the two clowns maneuver their way through their well honed material.

The two stars are credited with having created as well as performing the comic turns. They are joined in this outing by Shaina Taub and her band, who provide the perfect musical counterpoint to silent comedy which has been directed by Tina Landau.

Since I have seen and reviewed each of the New York offerings the duo has presented together (Fool Moon and an earlier Old Hats) there were certain subtleties that caught my attention in this outing.  In all the times I have seen David Shiner work, including appearances without Irwin,  this was the first time in my experience that the anger previously inherent in his approach to the audience seemed to soften and  there was even a hint of delight to his work.  At times he almost seemed to glow, radiating a comic energy that was palpable and irresistible.

Bill Irwin was up to his usual rubber bodied eccentric movement and dance that is nothing less than a marvel of human flexibility. What I marveled at most was the impeccably feminine woman he creates in a wonderfully funny sketch about an onstage battle between a half-baked magician and his female assistant, who is apparently a jealous wife.  Irwin’s drag avoids all the usual and obvious clichés clowns employ when donning dresses.  This is a flawless satire of a magician’s assistant who is willing to move props and style so long as he keeps his roving eye under control.

I was also struck by the important role props played throughout the show.  Props have always been employed not only by these masterful clowns but by every would-be clown who ever put balloons into the top of his dress.  But here they were more telling and more fascinating.  When either of the two clowns performed a solo turn the props served as their foil.  When they worked together the props helped create both the characters and the effective sight gags that won our laughter.  This is especially true in a parody of a political debate that manages to slip in some sly references to the comedy being staged by one of the national political parties.

The magician sketch is a cornucopia of comic props that keep exposing the magician and his assistant to one embarrassment after another, all of which they paper over with determined smiles and a bit of bossa nova. As the climax of their act they saw a woman in half, easily the high point of hilarity for the first half of the evening.  This sketch, by the way, employs a hilarious series of sight gags at its conclusion, garnering some of the biggest and most shocking laughs of the show.

It is topped only by Shiner’s audience participation “Comedy Cinema” gag, which closes the show. This piece  has been honed to infallible comic perfection, turning whatever his “assistants” give him into huge laughs.  The energy level Shiner pumps into this piece is quite amazing and as unstoppable as a moving locomotive.

Speaking of creating characters, Irwin absolutely disappears in the outrageous wig and phony nose he dons as an Italian waiter which he plays in one of his more familiar gags that also concludes with a brilliant sight-gag.

I love the train platform gag in which they alternately shrink and grow inside their over-sized suits, which is mainly the point of the gag until the garbled announcement on the PA system provides some sort of indecipherable information. That is a wonderful satiric commentary on what is all too often the case on the NYC subway system.

So there are many different kinds of laughs produced by these old hats, but they are as welcome as any cherished joke that always tickles one whenever it comes to mind.

While we are on the subject of clowns and clowning, after complaining about too much comedy in Monte Carlo, we are reminded how important and rewarding good clowning can be, both for the audience and the show it inhabits. This little poke in the ribs comes not only from Old Hats but also from the two clowns and ironic ringmaster in the Big Apple’s Grand Tour.  In the latter show, revisited recently in New Jersey, it became more obvious how vital clowns Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth, along with ringmaster John Kennedy  Kane are to holding the show together and keeping  it merrily moving along from the comedy bits to the displays of skill and daring and how welcome each of their brief appearances are.




Contemporary Circus Given an International Flavor

Early this January, the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City was the venue for the 2nd annual International Contemporary Circus Exposure event. It was a three-night affair, with six different companies performing either partial or complete works. Hosted by circus enthusiast and musician Sxip Shirey and produced by Circus Now,  the event was a great introduction to the variety of contemporary circus arts that can be experienced around the world today, as it included both domestic and foreign acts.

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Sxip Shirey looks a little bit like the love child of Albert Einstein and Reggie Watts, which works, because there is a science to his musical genius. He was ebullient on the topic of contemporary circus and circus life in general, rhapsodizing about sunsets around a circus tent with friends in Australia. Then, he turned on his feedback pitch shifters and picked up his harmonica, tin whistle and sundry instruments and blasted a powerful rhythmic beatbox tune heavy with Persian melodies and a New Orleans parade vibe. It was aptly titled “I Live in New York City”. Sxip’s  boisterous and infectious music is a perfect match for the circus, which may be why he feels so at home there, where he explained that he gets the thrill of reaching the populace. Sxip was the perfect emcee for the event, and as a long time Bindelstiff Family Cirkus musician, he had much to say about the universal appeal of circus across genres and cultures.

Acrobatic Conundrum-The Language of Chance

The first act of the show was from the Seattle School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts’ ensemble Acrobatic Conundrum, directed by Terry Crane. Their performance had the madcap quality of Alice in Wonderland as the ensemble wore frilly paper costumes and explored concepts such as play and reality amongst large white balloons with tenuous ladders. The work was inspired by a story by Luis Borges  called Library of Babel but some backstory was inevitably lost in translation since the company could present only 45 minutes of their 90 minute show. Two of the performers acted like children, laughing and flipping around, ultimately becoming acrobats, hand balancers and contortionists while repeating “Let’s pretend we are…” fill in the blank.  It led to their facing each other during handstands and declaring that they would pretend the world was upside down. Speech, however, was slightly distracting, which is a problem in circus performances, since it can sometimes detract from what the movement is conveying. As the performers transitioned into the aerial arts, like cloud swing, Spanish web and straps, a lanky clown, Ty Vennewitz, was often seen nearby weaving the entire story together with his playful presence.

At first, it seemed like the plan was simply to take a cabaret style show and tie it loosely together with a theme, but as it progressed, the intensity of the performances gave it new character worthy of a deeper look. Partner acrobatics was explored thoroughly with hand-to-hand and “toss-the-girl maneuvers” all pieced together as each performer’s virtuosity seemed to get exponentially more daring, irreverent and comical. The pinnacle of all that power was displayed in the solo silks performance of Anna Thomas-Henry as she performed a passionate and unique twist on the old silks, defying expectations with innovative and surprising moves and an eloquent sense of flow.

Ty Vennewitz’s solo began with a hoops act and evolved into his hula hooping on a Cyr wheel– an impressive feat since Ty is a very tall man. His Cyr wheel routine was graceful and energetic and a fitting finale for SANCA’s abbreviated piece.


Company Oktobre-Oktobre

Three performers from France arrived on the scene to play their iconic roles; that of the beleaguered hostess, the timid servant and importunate guest. The tone of Oktobre is as somber as the actual month of October, with setting and costumes all in black, and the character’s moods ranging from bored to irritated. Their story began by challenging the strength of their roles, by breaking down the absurdity of table manners with a power play based on who gets to sit where, which turned into a dark ballet among the three of them. In a farcical mash-up of cup and ball sleight-of-hand and object manipulation Yann Frisch maintained the deadpan expression of Buster Keaton and captured the exact tone of a weary traveler, twitchy, clumsy and confused while repeatedly trying the same action (just to drink some coffee without a ball intervening) with increasingly wilder results each time, all to great comic effect. The company’s story flowed from solos to group acts as effortlessly as their characters interacted. Jonathan Frau performed a solo act with a red ball (the lone beacon of color on the muted set) that could not be reached, which led to all sorts of contortion and chaos. This amusing and sometimes moving show finished with a stunning and powerful performance in complete silence by Eva Ordonez-Benedetto on trapeze.

Andreane LeClerc/Nadere Arts Vivants The Whore of Babylon

Addressing the biblical myth of The Whore of Babylon, director and performer Andreane LeClerc rode in on Death, which was a tiny wooden pony, and from that point on, symbolism was heavily woven throughout the act, as the other performers (Bonny Giroux, Dana Dugan, Marie Ève Bélanger, Maude Parent, Laura Lippert & Alma Buholzer) kowtowed to her. Writhing and bending, Bonny crept across the stage laying eggs, while Andreane donned a cape and picked up a whip. There is a lot of deconstruction going on, not just of the Book of Revelations tale, but also of circus skills. There was no hand balancing act per se or acrobatic act, just a fusion of motions which happened to include hand balancing and acrobatics as well as contemporary dance. The piece is almost more dance than circus, but the versatile skills required of the performers betrayed their past training. Even so, Andreane is pushing the threshold of what can be considered circus.

Andreane is known for her ability to push limits– as was true of Cherapaka, the solo work she presented this past year at Montreal Completement Cirque Festival– and she definitely succeeded again, presenting the lascivious tale of The Whore of Babylon with the nudity, heavy symbolism and overt sexuality one would expect in the hellish place where the action is set. The overall effect was as luscious and cinematic as it was thought-provoking. Red velvet and silks, whips, dramatic lighting and the provocative music of the Tiger Lilies all combined with the artists to create a powerful and riveting scene from the apocalypse.

Barely Methodical Troupe -Bromance

Three men (Louis Gift the base, Beren D’Amico the flyer and Charlie Wheeller the Cyr wheel artist) appeared on a sparse stage and proceded to interact. On the surface that seems like the most basic of ideas. But in this utterly charming show, it isn’t the props but the players and their connection that makes for real synergy. Bromance has the human turmoil of the threesome—or third wheel syndrome—as two good friends attempt to make room for a third in their dynamic. They toy lightly with the concept of homoeroticism. At first their slip-ups and close contact in each trick seems just awkward or playful but eventually they reveal an underlying longing for acceptance. They say the show is fairly autobiographical in that they work so closely as a threesome and have to get very hot and sweaty together on a regular basis so they wanted to explore that aspect of their work more deeply by addressing taboos of physical contact in male friendship. And oh, the politics that can be imparted by a mere handshake, the bravado of flips off each other’s backs, the finesse of hand-to-hand tricks and effortless head spins, the trust they must have for the dangerous stunts where they ‘rescue each other’ from injury, and the Cyr wheel act that finally won Charlie full inclusion into the group with the grudging respect of Louis the giant of a base. It all culminated in a coordinated dance and acrobatic number when they finally are in sync. Just as the concept of a bromance is vague in real life, it is unclear here whether their relationship is sexual or merely filled with the attachment of an intense friendship. But it hardly matters, because the show makes you experience their virtuosity as an extension of their feelings and commitment to their friendship, and that is quite a lot to feel while also watching amazing stunts unfold.

Water on Mars-Water on Mars

It began so simply, with two guys plugging in their iPhone to put on some electronic music, then juggling a few things quite well. They were surrounded by crates full of juggling supplies. The first tip off that expectations might be blown away occurred when the third juggler emerged from one of the crates and their tightly choreographed, high energy number truly began.

Though they used traditional props, their act burst out of the standard trick box. These three juggled high and low, taped together clubs and rings in many configurations, creating juggling super structures, then ran amok, juggling in ever more complicated patterns and conditions. They juggled across the audience to the stage, they juggled bags of candy and tossed them to the audience, they juggled open water bottles and then did back flips on the same wet stage, they manipulated any object they encountered, including the crates that held their props, and they generally crushed any restrictions one might place on juggling. For example, in juggling the taboo is dropping an item. That rule can be demolished if you are juggling 5 items and then someone tosses 15 items randomly at you, requiring you to drop your items and catch 5 from the air. They did this with grace and humor and an increasing sense of urgency until the act ended abruptly on a comical note with the unplugging of their music device.

Aloft Circus Dinner of Our Discontent

I wrote about Dinner of Our Discontent before for Spectacle when it played in Chicago in 2014, but this version was quite different, with a mostly new cast and some changes of props and choreography by Shayna Swanson. Shayna, is the writer and director who now also performed in the show as the elder business minded sibling among 5 sisters. The premise is still the same, the sisters are returning to the homestead after the death of their parents for the reading of the will. Of all the shows, this one had a storyline and characters that were most developed. There was the baby sister, always pushed aside and overlooked, the ever battling twins and the rebel sister who can’t stand the sight of her yuppie sister. Add to that the ghostly parents occupying their portraits and the frazzled but faithful housekeeper and you have a recipe for hijinks. This played itself out with table- sliding acrobatics, chandelier aerial dueling, twin contortion and a few mellower moments such as when the mother and dad find a quiet moment in the empty living room to perform a dance involving partner acrobatics. The entire work was not performed, which is a shame because it did not give the characters enough time to flesh out their complex relationships, but enough of the story came through to reveal the zingers and plot twists that kept the tempo of this show exciting.