Holiday Look Backs, this from 2008
Circus Review: Circus Vargas
San Francisco, August 13, 7:30 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission.
Watching Circus Vargas is like sitting down at a fine French restaurant, the first entree magnificent, only to be interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes by one distraction after another — a man off the street with a pet alligator offering to let you touch it and to have your photo taken with it between the main course and desert; another fellow running up to your table, shouting “Are you enjoying your meal?” And still another wanting to pull you into the kitchen and teach you how be a star chef. After this going on half the night, you leave exhausted and irked, fighting to remember why you ever went there in the first place.
Oh, yes, to see a circus. Actually, there is enough fine talent with this year’s edition of Circus Vargas, if only somebody — a director, a truant officer, a screaming Richard Barstow back from the dead — would grab the throat of this overstuffed mess and shake it down to length. Like down to a tautly restrained one hour thirty minutes. Out would go audience participation filler, clown routines needing the scissors, and desperate verbal interactions with the audience designed to force applause and fake displays of customer satisfaction.
Circus 1A: It’s a pity and a crime, because on many levels, Vargas excels, from an exemplary front door staff (the classiest I’ve encountered in years) to a string of stellar artists who deserve a far more focused and professional showcase..
The strong turns:
* The opening sequence — no circus I can recall in recent years has opened with such heart-pounding force. A captivating original song, "Circus Vargas,” sung with power by Ted McRae underscores the ensemble performing a variety of routines. Class A all the way.
* Engaging and diversified juggling from Esquedas. Great showmanly act.
* An amply amusing (no shills involved) safari spoof from two clowns out of the Torreblanca Family — in the mode of Lou Jacobs with shooting tears, but they advance the routine with additional touches, including a head of hair that raises high and the emission of white powder from -- oh no, how do I put this? -- from an area of the human body known to cause unpleasant odors. Overall, an absolute delight. This is clowning we need more of.
* Memorable trampoline exploits from the Martinellis.
* A clean classy flying routine, with a solid triple, from the Tabares. They have the flash and the flair, and I only wish they would have stayed up there longer.
* Rolly Bolly from the Espana Duo. Although this is not a gracefully enacted turn, the payoff trick is so amazingly good, I wanted to stand up and shout “Bravo!"
* Franciso Mendoza's mock bullfight. Am I glad they brought him back, for he totally turned my attitude around. Last year, I was left wanting. This time the entire act proved to be one of two comedy highlights of the evening, the other being heretofore mentioned.
Other notable moments: An ambitious female duo working the lyra, with their end items worthy of respect. And there are some winning tricks that just need editing down. For example, during a slow-moving equestrian pas de deux, a shill apprentice dragged from the crowd, dangling off the horse by a mechanic, grabs hold of John Weiss and they become a graceless duo in motion. Very very funny! Weiss, in fact, could have been given sole master of ceremonies and announcing chores. A shrewd director might have woven his mischief into other acts, but with BREVITY.
This show seems to have been produced under a couple of dubious assumptions: One, the longer the performance takes, the more the audience will respect it. Two, audiences need to be talked to a lot, which made me wonder if this show was directed by a group therapist. Actually, the talking begins with an engaging 20-minute “Interactive pre-show party” for the moppets hosted by tv personality John Weiss (left). All good and well except this party begins when the show should, so we the adults are held captive. After that, Weiss then becomes one of three announcing figures. Another is ringmaster Ted McRae, who gets to show off his cobra snake and offer photo ops to the audience during an obscenely protracted intermission. Throughout the show, he repeatedly works the crowd for applause and shout backs. “Are you having fun, San Francisco!” “Are you enjoying the show?” “I can’t hear the other side of the tent!” So annoying, it felt like being part of a studio audience before the taping of a tv show when a guy comes out to pump you up.
And I wanted to shout back, “Shut up, will you!” Polack Bros Circus co-founder Louis Stern, who lasted forty years in the business, once told his last ringmaster Robert Mitchell, who had been asking the audience before each intermission, “Are you enjoying the show?" to knock it off. Said Stern sternly, “One time they booed us.”
Lighting and costumes are generally excellent. The taped music, I must admit, is quite effective for much of the time, relevantly scored to the action at hand, though it does start to wear thin as the evening wears on and out. Following two motorcyclists from the Willy Family circling each other in the big cage, finale comes on with smiling faces. The audience (a very small crowd, maybe a quarter house) seemed moved. Then out go the performers through the front door to congregate around, there to interact with the exiting crowd. Nice touch, I suppose. I have only ever seen this done once before, at a community theatre.
The tent itself remains a work of art, mysterious and enchanting and so inviting. It deserves a superior performance that already exists in the ingredients. Another asset would be at least the handout of a one-sheet program.
Circus Vargas: Go to the back of the tent and repeat a thousand times over: "Every action, every moment, every pause and every word spoken either propels or retards the action." Were your strongest offerings to be placed back to back, and were all the irritating forced audience interactions and pitches routed, what a show you might have. Might that be, per chance, what you really want?
Overall score: * * 1/2