Carnival Story 

Touring show redefines the circus concept

Touring show redefines the circus concept

Oops! The Big Apple Circus Stage Show

Nov. 26, Jackson Hall, TPAC

"Oops! The Big Apple Circus Stage Show" may have been called a circus—it had a ringmaster, acrobats, clowns, and a razzle-dazzle band—but it wasn’t really a circus. It offered no prancy-dancy horses, nor a lugubrious elephant train. In deference to animal-rights activists, loud cap guns and snarling caged beasts were replaced by a Jack Russell terrier and a bevy of electric-green parakeets who shared hotel rooms with the performers. Nor did TPAC’s Jackson Hall provide space for three rings and a canvas tent.

No, this was really a stage show, in which Tony Walton and Michael Christensen’s dialogue turned out to be as important as the juggler’s aplomb. Tigers may have growled, and trainers may have cracked their whips, but these were sound effects rather than live action. In place of the typical circus trappings, this stage show used words, aided by expressive faces and pantomime, to create a connection between performers and audience.

Writers Julie Greenberg and Jeff Jenkins have invented a highly original concept to frame the touring production, which ran at TPAC last Tuesday through Sunday: Shakespeare players meet circus acrobats on the same stage, and turf wars commence. Shakespeare loses, but delightfully so. The whole production started with a tragic rendition of Romeo and Juliet—during the double suicide scene, to be exact. Patricia Zasadny as Juliet awoke, mourned the death of her sweetheart, raised his dagger to her heart, and—oops! She was interrupted by the arrival of circus clowns and jugglers, who snatched her dagger away. Pretty soon, she got in the carnival spirit and clumsily joined the acrobats.

There were acrobats aplenty in the show, some of them high prize-winners from Russia. Vladimir and Olga Kurziamov performed an exquisitely sensual aerial act to Ravel’s “Bolero.” The odalisque and her harem master floated high above the stage as he hung on ropes, and she onto him, their long golden drapery swirling dreamily in time to the music. Held only by one ankle, she went into a deep backbend and ended submissively at his feet.

Painted clown faces often frighten small children, but The Big Apple Circus broke through that barrier, thanks to Michael Trautman. As a clown, Trautman’s genius consisted of using the smallest and most ordinary props, such as Ping-Pong balls, in the simplest of situations. In one scene, he conveyed wide-eyed surprise as the balls continuously manifested themselves in his mouth, then reacted with unabashed delight at the audience’s laughter and applause.

Justin Case brought the house down in the role of the French bicyclist, complete with aviator cap and goggles, whose bicycle kept falling apart. He ineptly cobbled the equipment together and continued on, explaining that he had 10 minutes left for his time slot. “I am so embarrassed,” he confessed. For the grand finale, he managed to ride a Barbie-size bicycle through a flaming hoop. Of course, he singed his pants, but considering every other disaster he faced, it was a triumph for him simply to finish.

Oops! The Big Apple Circus Stage Show was good fun for children, but perhaps just as much so for adults. Juliet’s opening monologue on her deathbed scene must have puzzled the little ones, and perhaps made a few older ticket holders check their stubs just to make sure that they had come to the right show. After a somewhat slow start, the acts followed rapidly, one magical effect after the other. I missed the cotton candy and sawdust of the old days, but I preferred the intimacy of a stage show where witty dialogue added a humanistic dimension to the whole.

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