Sweet Can’s Mittens and Mistletoe: A Winter Circus Cabaret
by Judy Finelli
Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three part series by Judy Finelli documenting a watershed year for contemporary circus on the west coast.
It is always exciting to watch a company develop over a few seasons and nimbly top their earlier successes. With Mittens and Mistletoe Sweet Can delivered a warm, droll, and genuine holiday experience with humor, style, and deftness. The show bounces merrily along, buoyed by its own bubbly effervescence. The design team created a backdrop of a log cabin in the woods during a gentle snowstorm, setting the right warm and cozy mood one expects from a holiday treat, especially for us in snowless San Francisco.
The show’s core resides in the person of one extremely gifted musician, Luke Brechtelsbauer. His unique concoction of bagpipes and surprise percussive accents perfectly underscores the theme of this magnanimous effort. Brechtelsbauer surprises and delights the audience with infectious rhythms that tie together the variety of acts. This relatively small company of eight presents the illusion of being much larger, thanks to the judicious placement of the performers.
Everyone’s favorite neurotic, Jasper Patterson, relishes his spot as emcee in the role of a cringe-inducing uncle. His character is definitely “holiday challenged” and is in a quandary over how best to celebrate the overly-commercialized winter holiday season. Patterson’s eccentric uncle agonizes over every possible detail, raising this comically obsessive-compulsive character to a fine art.
Beth Clarke makes a welcome and triumphal return to performing her delightful slack wire act. Her silken movements and serene, focused face heighten the effect of her combined skills of flexibility, strength, and an assured equilibrium. She splits, lies on her back, walks, turns, lunges, and even foot-juggles a rolled-up rug, setting up a playful balance of opposing forces. If Brechtelsbauer is the core of the show, Clarke’s equilibristic talents provide the grounding.
Inspired clown Jamie Coventry, who as Master Chef Coventrino has thus far avoided arrest for his lethal legume-inspired puns, shows no remorse whatsoever and mercilessly inflicts them onto an unsuspecting public. He is so good-natured, however, that the puns become irresistible: “Eat healthy unlike the famous Italian chef who pasta way,” or “Most people think puns are the lowest form of humor, but I think they are arty jokes.” By the time Coventry finishes his chef act, which is reminiscent of all the marvelous European clown chef acts of the past, all are converted to his punmanship.
More than performing the juggling or object manipulation requirement of the traditional circus show, Natasha Koluza regales the audience with the athleticism of her funk-dancing, hip-hop inspired hula hoop manipulation and body juggling. While Kaluza explores myriad hoop possibilities, she is joined by fellow hooper Marria Kee and generously shares the stage with the young apprentice and roustabout. Not content to merely duplicate what she has done before, Koluza is a perpetual motion machine who constantly tries new tricks, rearranges their order, and varies the levels of tables and surfaces upon which she performs. Her fresh approach to this genre is welcome in an act which often follows a prescribed series of tricks and presentation. Sometimes she treats the hoops as swinging clubs doing grapevines, and at other times the hoops become point of fix contact juggling props. All the while the hoops have become part of a total body manipulation. Her act is mesmerizing. When she closes with the increasing addition of large numbers of hula hoops, she becomes a human cyclone.
Actor Jeremy Vik, who recently appeared as Feste in a Shotgun Players production of Twelfth Night, is also an equilibrist. With Sweet Can he performs a pyramid of chairs act which involves stacking chairs in precarious ways while executing a variety of handstands and levers atop the chairs. Vik is always keen to maintain a performer’s eye-contact with his audience, eliciting laughs from his facial expressions. To their delight and relief, his act also combines suspense and a steady mastery over the forces of gravity.
Tissu aerialist Kerri Kresinski, showcases her amazing aerobic capabilities by delivering a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners airborne act. She wraps herself up in the silks, then artfully unwraps them in a varied display of drops and rolls which reminds one of a spinning top. All the while she displays impressive strength and leg flexibility. Kresinski’s tissu act is a seemingly effortless confection of contemporary circus combined with charming, old-fashioned showmanship.
Russian-born émigré Andrey Pfening is an unconventional choice for a circus. His world is more that of the X Games than the circus. A champion parkour ninja warrior athlete, Pfening derives his act from the multiple surfaces of an urban environment. Benches, staircases, embankments, fences, slides, children’s playground equipment, bluffs, mailboxes, railings. Whatever the surface, Pfening’s parkour acrobat can somersault from it, climb it, or skimmer along it. For his circus act, Pfening sets up a kind of indoor parkour course from a combination of tables, crash pads, and wooden boxes, then proceeds to exhibit a bewildering explosion of agility, strength, timing, and stamina. For Pfening, back somersaults off of uneven surfaces present absolutely no problem. The act soars, but it’s abundantly clear he is in command.
Unfortunately, I did not see Swiss wire walker Eulalie Svetlana Blanc on the evening I attended. However, the show felt joyous and complete – exactly what one would want from an evening celebrating the holiday season. Mittens and Mistletoe added a sweet conclusion to a truly watershed year for Bay Area circus.
Mittens and Mistletoe was presented at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th Street, San Francisco, CA, December 27, 2015
Luke Brechtelsbauer, Music
Beth Clarke, Slack Rope Jamie Coventry, Clown
Natasha Kaluza, Hoops
Marria Kee, Roustabout, Hoops
Kerri Kresinksi, Tissu
Jasper Patterson, Emcee
Andrey Pfening, Parkour
Jeremy Vik, Handbalancing
Artistic Team: Beth Clarke, Coventry & Kaluza, Kerri Kresinski, Jasper Patterson
Tech: Harry Rubeck & Patrick Sweeney