The Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 3

A Brilliant Production Sends Ringling Out of This World

(Literally and Figuratively)


Photo by Paul Gutheil

Photo by Paul Gutheil

In the introduction to my book From Barnum & Bailey to Feld I wrote, “Over the course of its long existence the Greatest Show on Earth has been at various times a biblical spectacle and historical pageant, a ceremonial introduction to the peoples and cultures of the world, a fairy tale masque, a glorification of the powers of American military might, an exhibition of horsemanship, a zoological and scientific exposition. To my knowledge, [however] none of the artists who have performed under the banner of the Greatest Show on Earth has ever donned ice skates.”  That was back prior to publication in 2014.  How ironic that statement seems today and perhaps how fitting it is that it is with this last production of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that such an exception should finally be filled.

In anticipating this final production (we didn’t know it would be the finale when it was first announced) the fear was that the ice rink and circus ring would seem like two separate productions. That has not turned out to be the case.  On the contrary the ice and ring are seamlessly melded into one unified effort.  Never is there the sense of its first being this and then its turning into that.  It is always completely and successfully integrated, often excitingly so.   The speed of the skaters adds a level of energy that exceeds how we have been quick to label shows of the past as “fast paced.”

More than ever, however, the show is committed to a story line that follows the conflict of two opposing forces. It is in this that the production is least successful.  The opening moment, however, provides a strong promise of an intriguing story to come.  Involving two young boys aspiring to careers in the circus, it is wholly believable and a plot kids could identify with it.  Unfortunately the plotting flies off into a fantasy world that is further out of this world than any inter-planetary tale could ever be.

Too bad it couldn’t have just stuck with the story of the boys or alternately the “Out of this World” theme without a plot, because the physical production is often enormously successful in creating an other-worldly atmosphere, especially in the beginning and at other moments during the show when we are effectively immersed in the theme. During the course of the performance the gorgeous and evocative lighting by Sam Doty and the production design of Josh Zangen often transports us “out of this world.”   The fire sequence near the conclusion is especially stunning.  Those who complain about over production are missing the point.  This is what makes Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey the Greatest Show on Earth.  This is what it’s about.  This is how it dazzles.

The show’s staging also contributes enormously to the overall effect, leading us from one surprise to another. I loved the technique by which various acts are revealed  as if by sleight of hand  providing a surprise that always drew sizeable, audible gasps of delight from the audience when the girls in the bubbles, the cat act, and the globe of death were exposed in a brilliant flash of light and music.

In considering the pacing of the show it should be pointed out that the creators have taken the daring step to allow the show proper to begin with one of the slowest paced acts seen in recent outings. Most conventional high wire acts adopt a Latin beat so that their moves would be fast and energetic.  The Simet Wheel, on the other hand, which is the first true skill act in the show, plays it with delicate often slow motion care.  It is almost painfully slow, but for me it was the perfect vehicle to take us out of this world.  Not only is the deliberate speed of the act reminiscent of the painfully slow maneuvers of space walks, the apparatus on which they work is so strange and daring that it seems the perfect beginning for a production with this theme.

Hence forth the ice skating Heilongjiang troupe from China keeps things whizzing along, that is except for those heavy handed plot machinations. These involve a comic acrobat Davis Vassallo who plays the grownup version of one of these kids we saw at the outset.  He and the clowns are meant to provide the comic relief in all this, but he spends so much time begging for approval between his comic stunts that he undercuts any impact he may have, comic or otherwise.  As for the clowns, their other-worldy costumes and a snowball fight provide some amusement, the latter’s success stemming from the fact that the slapstick actually grows out of the frosty context of the moment.

Embedded in all this visual splendor are some of the strongest acts that have appeared under the Ringling banner in recent years. First to appear in a jolting tableau of magnificent animals is Alexander Lacey, who manages one of the most satisfying cage acts I have ever seen. (I would put his brother Martin in the same category.) He has found the perfect balance between having to drag furniture around and getting his lions  (male and female)  and tigers to do what is asked of them with a minimum of fuss and fractiousness, and without losing their wild nature.

A long-standing favorite, the Torres family, jams no less than eight members of the family on motorcycles into the so-called Globe of Death and sends them whirling about in a bewildering pattern, weaving in and out of each other’s way. It is an unquestionably spectacular sight.

The Cossack riders surely the most aggressively dynamic act of the show, is suitably spotted next to closing. As the act began it drew the man seated next to me literally to the edge of his seat.  The dozen riders, both men and women, literally throw themselves with wild abandon through the complete repertoire of such acts leaving the audience as breathless as the riders must be at their triumphal conclusion.

Another traditional favorite, the flying act, here performed by the Tunziani Troupe, has been doubled with two catchers positioned in the middle of the rigging, facing in opposite directions, with flyers coming at them for two directions. Thanks to some exquisite timing in which one flyer leaves the fly bar just as another at the opposite end returns, there is continuous action with a variety of intricate twists and flips, and catches. After seeing the act work at two different performances their success rate, insofar as completions is concerned is rather inconsistent; however, a quad was caught at one of these performances.  On another night there were several misses, including the quad.  The passing leap was performed in a version of black light.

The King Charles Troupe has been reinstated, and although it is now in its third generation it is still up to its usual chaos and mayhem as a unicycling version of the Harlem Globetrotters.   Like almost everything but the clowning, speed is the modus operandi here.

Speed is surely the principal characteristic of the Heilongjiang Provincial Acrobatic Troupe, who keep the show moving as earth bound dancers never could. They also add another element of acrobatic excitement, bringing the classic Chinese art of hoop diving to their skating, combining the technology and techniques of the last Chinese acrobatic troupe we saw with Ringling.

Add to all this a mixed animal act featuring a jumping Kangaroo presented by Alexander and Katie Lacey and a pack of Hans Klose’s canines who had the woman next to me jumping out of her seat. In the midst of fast moving moment of pure spectacle there is a contortion act, a pair of aerial strap acts, and, seven women aerialists who spend a good deal of time in plastic bubbles, and finally, of course, there is ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson and his sidekick Paulo Dos Santos manipulating those enthusiastic audience responses I’ve mentioned and many others.  A fitting finale to The Greatest Show on Earth.

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Photo by Paul Gutheil

For the fact that the show is so exciting throughout, credit the following: Producer Alana Feld; Creative director Amy Tinkham; show director Rye Mullis, writer Malcolm Williamson; Production Designer Josh Zangen; Costume Designer Marco Morante, Lighting Designer Sam Doty; Choreographer Kevin Wilson, Ice Choreographer Adam Blake, Musical Composer  Michael Picton; and Lyricist Michael Himelstein, and of course the Ringling Bros. Band led by Wages Argott.

A Circus With No Pretensions

What a concept: a circus pretending to be a circus!

Circus 1903How refreshing to find a circus that doesn’t try to be anything other than a circus—not an insane asylum, a gourmet kitchen, a communal living space, outer space, or a funeral. Not that those can’t, on occasion,  be fun as a frame of reference, but a good, straight-forward, honest-to-goodness circus forestalls any cries of pretentiousness, and Simon Painter’s Circus 1903, the Golden Age of Circus, is all those things besides being entirely down to earth.

The most exciting thing about this circus however, aside from one or two acts, is its theatricality. It has been staged with a keen and practiced eye by Neil Dorward toward achieving moments of theatrical excitement, which have more to do with the lighting, the staging, the choreography, the costumes, special effects (lots of fog) and the music, more than the individual acts.

And then there is the ringmaster, Willy Whipsnade in the person of David Williamson, who is not only in charge of guiding us through the lineup of attractions but also for providing the show’s only source of comedy, both of which he does with amazing aplomb, unerring comic timing, a sense of the ridiculous and the magical art of manipulating children into providing extended moments of enormous innocent hilarity.

In the opening moments, at the performance I saw in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, a tiny Chinese girl who was almost totally impassive and required the help of her mother by way of translation provided a series of endearing laughs and set the tone for the show’s lighter moments.  This came to pass because, you see, although Williamson uses the children shamelessly, there is nothing mean spirited or condescending about the laughs he gets out of gently tormenting them, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Earlier in the show he provides an hilarious commentary on the weird and wild wonders of the midway.

Another group of four children is introduced as a plausible substitute for the ferocious wild animal acts for which the classic circus is famous. Certainly the children are more unpredictable than say, Alex Lacey’s lions and tigers, and it takes as much patience and ingenuity to get them to perform something approximating what he has asked of them, but it’s in the approximation that the humor is mined.

Of the two acts that stand out as great and true circus there is the Korean plank act presented by the Flying Fins and the cradle, cum casting act of Anny Laplante and Andrei Kalesnikau.   I also enjoyed the knock-about floor acrobatics of Duo Flash whose comic attitude and rapid fire maneuvers amounts to nothing less than slapstick acrobatics.  A pleasantly novel hybrid of ball balancing and adagio is offered by a duo who are not named in the Playbill.

The show also packs seven other circus turns into its comparatively brief running time of just under two hours with a 20 minute intermission. It makes one wonder what are all these other shows that take up more of our time doing to fill the usual two hours plus.  The bill is filled out by trick bike riding performed by Florian Blummel, the speed juggling of Francois Borie, contortionist Senayet Assefa Amara and Elean Gatilova on the lyra. A couple of alternate acts did not appear on opening night.

Some of the acts are a bit oversold and the musical accompaniment, heavy on the percussion, never suggests anything less than a spine-tingling turn although they are in fact something less. Evan Jolly created the original score.

The closing act is a traditional high wire act performed by Los Lopez.  It made me wonder if there is a high wire troupe somewhere in the world that doesn’t beg shamelessly for applause.  If there is, with the exception being the various branches of the Wallenda family, I haven’t seen it.

Of yes, there are those much ballyhooed life-size elephant puppets, created by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Objects, the people who created the horses for the stage play War Horse.  They make brief appearances at the end of each of the show’s two acts, without suggesting anything of a classic elephant act.  The heads, but not particularly the trunks are quite convincingly realistic, but the bodies of the mature African elephant always look as if it is about to fly apart.   The puppets do add a note of particular whimsy to the first act finale that concludes by raising a semblance of a big top with all its promise of glory and magic.

In the opening the circus’s arrival into town is wonderfully captured in the effectively choreographed rhythmic pounding of tent stakes and the tossing about of those unglamorous but ubiquitous necessities of circus life in 1903, the water buckets, all of it enacted in the mysterious half-light of dawn. (For added realism they should have the names of the performers painted on them.)

It’s not exactly 1903 in this approximation of the golden age of the circus, but it has its moments of fun.