Sunday, June 03, 2007

Chimera’s Ground-Bound Juke Box Romp Dances More than it Circuses

Circus Review: Circus Chimera

$22.00 top. Santa Rosa, California, June 2, 1:30 p.m.

In a rare moment of artistic redemption during the second half of the new Circus Chimera, which has wrapped itself around a juke box of rock from Beach Boys to disco, a quartet of lovely Chinese women, each keeping six plates spinning atop that many sticks, move fetchingly about while an old disco hit "Get Down, Boogie!" plays. Music and motion merge magically in rare juxtaposition: old China and modern American pop in tandem. And in that fleeting moment, a stylishly distinctive show that might have been teases our imagination. Alas, not to be. This Chimera, on balance, is the most problematic one I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, Chimera’s founder and boss Jim Judkins has not the means nor the direction necessary to turn such a moment into a full-scale assault. And worse still, he must evidently spend too much of his time either pitching all manner of revenue-enhancing products (photo ops, clown faces, etc) or resorting to filler (extended audience participation and clown gags) just to fill out two belabored hours. Surprisingly, there is a lot of dancing here, engaging at the outset, not so later on.

The show begins fifteen minutes late, and then it still does not begin. "Master of ceremonies" Roy Ortiz (really, he should be called "master of concessions") announces that the Peterson Peanut Company wishes to "reintroduce" itself to Chimera audiences, and how many times before have we heard that one? After ten years on the road, Chimera still struggles to compensate for a lackluster box office. And yet the crowd seems to accept these unpretty pitches. Then again, what is an audience, largely composed of kids who have gotten in for free, to say? On a practical level aside from jaded adult impressions, considering the generously low ticket prices and the super-friendly staff here, to American families who are themselves also struggling to make ends meet, Chimera may come as a welcome bargain. Children, after all, need only the basics to feel a certain delight.

Chimera does offer a few solid treats that even adults can enjoy. Raul Cubillos is a personable juggler of mid-level skills who delivers the goods for sure. In another winning turn, he is one sly contortionist who packs himself into a small glass box. Nifty feat. Brother and sister Gino and Andrea Treblinka, a robust pair of roller skaters, work familiar tricks that give the crowd some thrills. Young Fridman Torales [above], cool and showmanly from start to finish, takes an upside down walk from loop to loop, forward and then backwards. It's a gripping display. If only there were more of this under the Chimera canvas. (Torales did not perform his rolla bolla act, which is given extraordinary hype on the website.)

A couple of gifted clowns who reveal amusing creativity — Ben Allen and Tavis Beem [left] — are called upon too often to pad a thin show. In fact, so thin is the first half, that the stronger second part, which allows itself a few ballads away from the harder rock stuff, looks and feels comparatively wonderful.

What hobbles Chimera the most is the tacky context and poor direction: On the edges, an old fashioned midway ("Spiders and snakes! Come on in and see spiders and snakes!") is largely ignored by patrons and serves as a shoddy prelude to the contemporary form of circus Judkins is striving to give the public. The tent itself, a tightly contained enclosure, absolutely oppresses in the heat. Inside, the program is ill-paced and stumbles to a clumsy, time-consuming climax. After two motorcyclists circle each other in the "globe of death," instead of bringing the cast out for quick bows around the outer edges of the ring, one of the clowns poses as a rock singer atop the globe while it is slowly untethered and removed. Finally, the cast emerges, anti-climatically. Any good director would have insisted on respotting the globe to the first-half closer, thus allowing for a seamless flow into finale.

Chimera’s fragile journey into who-knows-where continues, and the markings of a downturn do not bode well: Missing from the lineup were a Chinese group listed on the website who juggle hats, dive through hoops and work the aerial bungee. For the first time I can recall, there is no glossy program sheet for sale. Roughly one-quarter of the seats were occupied, and that’s about par for the course from my visits over the years.

Had all the listed talent been there and had there been a gifted director to turn the Judkins juke box idea into a smooth working machine, maybe the result would have been remarkable. As it now stands, there is too little circus and too much of everything else from commerce to padding. The mass saturation of free kids tickets will take you only so far. You need strong word-of-mouth to get more bodies into your seats And that takes a far stronger impact inside the only ring that counts. On a hot Santa Rosa afternoon across the street from the very fairgrounds of my youth where the Clyde Beatty Circus once pitched its big top in better days gone by, it was hard to see a rainbow in Chimera’s still-uncertain future.

Overall score: * *

[photo, bottom right: Raul and Gabriela Cubillos. He juggles. They both contort; all individual performer photos off Circus Chimera website]


James said...

This is an incredibly tough business to operate, traveling from community to community, venue to venue, with a goal of providing an affordable family show.

The feedback that we get back from the public is that they enjoy our show.

It is difficult to respond to your review -- it saddens me that you were so negative.

Showbiz David said...

Sorry I depressed you, Jim. It saddens me, too, that you are still struggling so. Maybe, as opposed to the typical reviews you will likely get, I said something that will prod you into a more successful direction. I hope so.

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