The Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 8

Big Apple Circus Returns in Triumph

Unlike past shows under the previous management of the Big Apple Circus, its current production which opened in New York City at the end of October, has no title. It is simply the Big Apple Circus. But there isn’t all that much about it that is simple, except the pleasure it delivers.  This comes principally from two potentially triumphant acts either of which on its own has the ability to turn the performance into a memorable and truly thrilling event, but when they both click as they did with separate flawless performances,  they have the potential to turn the event into a spectacular, unforgettable circus experience, as they did on what was the company’s  invitational opening night.

At the close of the first half Ammed Tuniziani of the Flying Tuniziani completed a quad, a jaw dropping sight especially when seen as up close as when can get to it at the Big Apple, sending the audience out for an intermission break charged with energy and anticipation of what was yet to come.  Tuniziani’s historic achievement almost comes as an unexpected surprise.  Just before Ammed launches himself into the air another member of the troupe attempts a triple, which turned out to be on this occasion a near miss.  So the audience is not anticipating the sudden rush of tension when the quad is announced with what I think was a minimum of hyperbole, all of which made Ammed’s success that much more thrilling, producing the kind of cheer one tends to hear only at athletic events.  Of course there is a tremendous amount of athleticism involved, but grace and beauty as well.  It doesn’t get much better.

But it does. At the conclusion of the show Nik Wallenda gave New York City a chance to wonder at his seven person pyramid for the first time.  (The trick has been seen elsewhere fairly consistently recently,  but it was never performed in New York, either by Karl Wallenda the troupe’s progenitor or any of his descendants.  It was only after the original Wallenda troupe left Ringling in 1946 that Karl decided to create this spectacular act, which eventually rocketed the Wallendas to national prominence and made them a household name, but ironically only after a catastrophic fall in 1962.  Since then Karl’s  heirs have performed the pyramid with spectacular success, but only after years of its being abandoned as too dangerous.)

Whereas the tension of the flying act is created by its speed, the tension here is a product of the slow deliberateness with which each step across the wire is carefully almost torturously measured until all seven reach the safety of the opposite platform and everyone can breathe again. There is a certain elegance to this carefully considered performance, which adds another level of appreciation that goes beyond the admiration for the daring involved.

So with these two acts who needs a title, especially when they are surrounded by an entire cast of other top flight acts: the Anastasini Brothers risley act, Elayne Kramer’s contortion with its amazing conclusion, Jenny Vidbel in a ring full of eighteen horses of all sizes and varying temperaments, and Jan Damm’s uniquely revolving rola bola turn.   Juggler Gamal Garcia Tuniziani, brother of the flying act’s star adds bewildering speed to his manipulation of clubs and in particular his ball bouncing routine.   Roller skating duo Dandino and Luciana Garcia add another element of speed and flash. All told there is nary a moment that doesn’t add to the ever growing excitement that brings us to those final displays of each act.

Grandma is back again, up to her familiar tricks, which is one of the few reminders of what the Big Apple Circus once was. He is aided and abetted by Joel Jeske.  Ringmaster Ty McFarlan pretty much stays out of the way, making the occasional announcement.  Otherwise the show looks and feel completely new and fresh thanks to the slickly efficient direction of Mark  Lonergan, so the absence of title is obviously no mistake.

This production does not have the folksiness and sense of being part of the family that added so much to the appeal of past shows, although Grandma tries to make up for that with two moments obviously pitched to the family trade when he took two different kids on two different occasions into the ring with him in an effort to re-establish his standing as a beloved circus figure.

The invitational opening night performance had the excitement and anticipation of a Broadway premiere: Lots of excited buzz, before and at intermission and cheers and standing ovations during the show for the two acts already highlighted.   Judging from that response, little of the show’s past will be missed by future audiences.

The spiffy setting suggestive of the city skyline is by Rob Bissinger and Anita LaScala. The effective lighting design is by Jeff Croiter.  Amy Clark has provided the costumes.  The new musical score is the work of Peter Buffano, David Bandman, and Jeffrey Holmes.  Joel Jeske, besides performing is also the show’s writer. Rob Slowik leads a seven piece ensemble that provided the lively background music.



Classic Clowning Turns Up in an Unusual Setting

James Thierree is at far right


There is not the slightest hint in any of the program or biographical notes accompanying the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production of James Thierrèe’s La grenouille avait raison or The Toad Knew that informs us that Thierrèe is in fact the grandson of Charlie Chaplin.  Thierrèe , himself, however, is not reticent about making the most of that relationship in his performance.  His slight build and physical mannerisms, his cultivated unruly forelock reveal his lineage quite unmistakably.

La grenouille avait raison is not by any stretch of the imagination a circus, but it is surely and emphatically physical theatre derived from classic clowning.  In fact almost everything about the production, the props, the scenery, the six members of the cast ( all of which are the work of or have been trained by Thierrèe ) are animated to a degree that would make calling it anything other than physical theatre slightly absurd.  In fact it could more appropriately be called physical theatre to the max.

Talk about body language: the actors’ physicality is invariably more expressive than any words could be.  When any two or more of the characters take to silently “screaming” at one another there is no mistaking their total commitment to the exchange.

But, as I have already suggested, the production is basically ninety minutes of non-stop clowning. In that respect it is, in almost all ways, Charlie Chaplin X 10, and therefore inherently fascinating.

Despite all that, Thierrèe sees the work as “a sensorial experience more than a theatrical experience….people can project whatever they want” into it. That said it is impossible to ignore the simple fact that it does take place in a theatre where certain conventions and therefore expectations are in place. And in its failure to honor them is the show’s greatest disappointment.  There is no build to the action; it seems to be shuffling through the decadent debris that litters the setting.

The work is billed as an hallucinatory tale, but at no time, despite the bizarre stage trappings which are clearly evident in the accompanying photos of the production did I ever feel involved intellectually or emotionally enough to consider any flight of fancy. Instead I was always and only involved in observing the clowning technique. In that realm I must say I never saw anything that surprised me, all the clowning or comedic bits are things I had seen before in various contexts, the distinction here being that they are extended to the point of exhaustion, an exaggeration of an exaggeration if you will.

These extended moments of comic interplay include several moments when he plays with that previously noted forelock to mounting frustration of any hope of getting it to behave. He and one of his supporting cast fall into several entanglements in which one or more of their body parts become inextricably intertwined with frustration rising to panic for all involved, wherein lies the comedy.

Thierrèe has an extended solo moment when he sits yoga-style downstage and explores all the wild images he can create by placing his hands in various positions around his eyes. The longer this goes on the more outrageously amusing these images become.

The production opens with Thierrèe playing a violin solo that continually seems on the verge of ending, at which point his assistant will take his bow. Much to the assistants annoyance the end never seems to arrive.

An onstage antique pianola turns out to have a mind of its own and will not respond to repeated and growingly exasperated importunings from several of the characters to cease its bombastic interruptions, providing another comic gambit.

The show’s closing comic turn is a classic piece of vaudevillian-like magic in which the more the characters try to bag a stack of tin plates, the more there seem to be, once again physical objects taking on a life of their own, as suggested by Henri Bergson in his essay on laughter.

It has been fifteen years since I last saw one of Thierrèe’s shows and interviewed him. Then he was much more acrobatic than he is now, but his work here is still extremely strenuous if not genuinely acrobatic.  His ascent and decent on a spinning spiral staircase is nothing short of balletic.  As the work ends he takes on a mechanical dragon-like prop which he attempts to subdue by riding it in whirling, dizzying circles.

Seeing Thierrèe move through the shadowy scenic pieces and the mysterious props scattered about we can fully understand what he means when he explains his aesthetics’ underpinning thusly: “We have never been circus people,” he says, “we’ve never been theatre people, or dance people—we’re a bit of all that.” Somewhere in between is where this production hauntingly  takes up a  fascinating residence and it is a territory that I think will be increasingly occupied by artists with circus skills.