Sunday, October 07, 2007
Whirlwind Tumblers, Jugglers, Cats and Dogs Power a Padded and Slim Circus Vargas
Culver City, California, Fox Hills Mall, October 6 at 2 p.m. $40.00 top.
Entering the new Circus Vargas tent, I was struck by an enchantment I can’t recall feeling since I entered the Ringling-Barnum big top in 1955: a stunning image of blue canvas reaching skyward into a sublime darkness, silver cables in symmetrical arrangement, a quietness all around promising something magical and great.
They have the setting. They have an inviting midway. Good reasonable ticket prices. They have a classy staff, a winning web site design, and they express a sincere intention to revive a circus whose heyday came and went over twenty years ago. All they need now is the show. They are, with regrets I have to report, not all the way there yet, and the road ahead should be no less difficult than it was for founding dynamo, Cliff Vargas.
At its classiest, the new edition of Circus Vargas, produced by the Tabares flyers — now in their second season as owners — rides high on whirlwind tumbling, whether off a casting net, across a trampoline or around horizontal bars. Juggling, a secondary asset, opens the show on a high-voltage note. First, Jonathan dazzles in class a mode spinning and manipulating variously shaped silver cubes; then, in quick succession, a juggler, working fairly standard stuff, keeps the pace alive with speed and gusto. Two acts in a row — could it be, are we about to see a program totally unencumbered by concession pitches, overhead video distractions, or inanely half-baked story lines that go nowhere?
No, it can’t. What follows are nagging slowdowns when ringmaster Ted McRae pitches intermission photo ops or the clowns wear out a welcome mat. Filler. One centers around McRae’s live Python snake, introduced out of a black sack along the aisle. Other commercials push flashlights and more photo ops. Then there is the hyperactive approach taken by McRae, who takes old line oratory over the top. A good singer, he does a fine job selling an original number during the opening parade, but his labored efforts throughout the program only reinforce the impression of a skimpy enterprise being padded for time.
More momentary highlights: Marinelli’s trampoline workouts are exhilarating. So are the Yeromenkos from the Ukraine whirling around a trio of horizontal bars.
Vargas gives the Euro-centric clowns (including a funny band) plenty of time to please, and their antics seem to keep the moppets giggling. How good? I found myself giggling too — now and then — at some fairly amusing stuff a bit musty and tired at the edges. One of the comedy turns is a mock bullfighter, Mendoza, working with a dog standing in for the bull. This serves also as a set up for another intermission photo op. Performers wear multiple hats. The Argentine clown Pocho, a come-in charmer with illusion, turns into a balloon salesman at interval time.
The real ring stealers, though, are a prima cat and dog courtesy of another of those Russians, this one Vladimir, who have a miraculous way with getting furry pets to carry on like eccentric humans. The cat is a wonder, evidently in control of its own tail for posturing purposes, and able to roll about this way and that on cue. The dog waves his front paws for an extended period of time to the music. A pair of incredible delights. Loved ‘em! Let’s see, world, are the animals going out of their way these days to tell us, “Let us back in, American circus, for we can save the show!”
Other pace-retarding elements: hula hoops that do not impress and sluggish prop changes between acts. Nor does a taped soundtrack consisting mostly of intense disco-styled drone distinguish the program much. Only two acts, Jonathan’s cube juggling and the terrifically impressive Yeromenkos, work against the humdrum musical grain with music that feels contemporary yet not of the outside world.
Missing in action: Not just any wild animal acts or horses, but nothing in the air. (The Osmani Sisters, who work silk webs, did not appear. Neither did Roman Ring artist Yasmin or Juan’s circus ballet.) Are we merely at the end of a losing season marked by early exits? I’d hate to think so. How odd that a circus owned by flyers should offer nothing over sawdust. Ah, but you ask, how about the champion Tabares? They open the second half, commanding a ringmaster’s just bombast, “Winners of the Gold Clown at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival in 2004!”
This, I knew, was a moment worth traveling hundreds of miles to see. I sat right under the end net and what a thrill to watch them swooping through the air while they worked routine warm-up stuff and inserted flash and flair. I think I saw a single somersault, unlikely a double. And now — can you believe this ---- they are heading for the net! I was left utterly dumbfounded. Never have I seen so pitifully little accomplished on the flying return, and this from Monte Carlo Gold? When I cornered McRae on my way out, he told me “they definitely cut some stuff this morning.” This morning? Pardon me, the show began at 2 p.m.
Heck, they cut the entire act. An unpardonable sin these flyers would dare not commit were they not also their own bosses. What might have been a moment of redeeming glory was thrown to the nets. The next time the Tabares decide to crack a whip at under performing employees, the first to hear it should be themselves.
Want to see the Tabares in top flight form? Watch a video of them impress the Monte Carlo judges on the Vargas website, or call ahead to see if they might be in the mood to try impressing you.
The new Circus Vargas is in many ways like the old (or in limbo) Circus Chimera. Maybe, at most, a quarter of the seats were filled. No program magazine or sheet for sale, and several acts a no-show. Unlike Chimera, not a trace of advertising. A couple sitting behind me with their daughter said that had they not noticed the tent in the Fox Hills Mall parking lot, they would not have known there was a circus in their town.
And unlike Chimera, Vargas gives one a magnificent big top setting to remember. Sadly, under it during a heavily padded couple of meandering hours, simply too little happened.
Overall grade: **