Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Flip Flops to New York: “Birdhouse Factory” Sends Critics Flying High; Variety Cools to Return of Wintuk


It’s all about how to cast circus skills in a newer context, that’s what’s up in the Big Apple at the moment, and where New Yorkers can examine two alternate forms — circus theatre and circus ballet.

Chris Lashua’s intricately clever Birdhouse Factory, which premiered in San Francisco in 2005, has grabbed the favor of a few adoring scribes, reaping flat-out raves. “Engrossingly entertaining,” sighs the unequivocal Lawrence Van Gelder in The New York Times, finding this one worthy of a parade of adjectives from “evocative” to “excellent.” Birdhouse performs a limited six-week run at the 499 seat New Victory Theatre in an intermissionless 90 minute package. Like a typical reviewer tossing praise at the nouveau troupes, Van Gelder spends most of his shine on standard circus tricks (what would these break-out shows ever do without them?). I’ve glanced at a couple of other similarly cheering assessments, one in TheatreMania.

Cirque du Soleil’s first bid for the moppet market with rich parents, Wintuk, is in its second season at the theatre at Madison Square Garden, where it opened last year to a chorus of boos from most critics and consumers, although it’s not certain what the kids thought. Here, bottom line, might tell us what the kids thought: Best seats this year sell for a whopping $220 — up from last year’s charitable $99.00. That tells me that either King Laliberte is doing another something very right — or he is out of his marketing mind. Variety’s man, Steven Suskin, about the only reviewer last year to give Wintuk a solid thumbs up (“happily for all, it’s a good one”) is not nearly so confident this time around. In particular, Suskin is bothered the most by a different, less enchanting young boy who is supposed to be about 12-years-old "but appears to be more than twice that" playing the lead. That’s the boy who longs to see snow. Thus, regrets Suskin, "the illusion of a young Alex in Wonderland has vanished." And the frail storyline line is what another ambivalent critic, the Times Jason Zinoman, terms a “rickety narrative.”

Zinoman, curiously, has lots to say in favor of the show, but then shifts suddenly into reverse, making me wonder if he really liked it but just couldn’t bring himself to embrace an extravagantly mounted work ($7 million to produce) from the Montreal monster. “Retains a cold corporate sheen that comes off as oddly downbeat and humorless; there are very few laughs, and none from the belly.”

What to think, believe? I’ve already seen Birdhouse, which I found theoretically brilliant though strangely morose — perhaps they’ve added more levity to the mix. Wintuk does greatly intrigue me, but would I hawk my modest little one-bedroom rental to pay for a ticket? I doubt it. I suspect that the engagingly good circus turns alluded to can be seen at far less pricier venues. And, frankly, the idea of a ducat topping two hundred dollars feels, well, like a cold corporate insult — especially in these bleak times ... Shame on you, Guy Ebenezer Scrooge!

Which brings us back to the beginning. And to a question we may be asking of both these arty alternatives a few years ahead: Whatever happened to the Circus of Soul put on last December at the Apollo theatre, which if I am correct was largely ignored by the critics but seemed to have left a few customers raving? Almost like asking, whatever happened to the Pickles of San Francisco? I don’t see any evidence they are presenting anything this Holiday, nor did they last Holiday. I'd go pay for a ticket.

These fringers certainly have some sort of an affect on the mainstream , but they tend to come and go rather than last and grow. I do think Chris Lashua is a very gifted guy, and I wish CDS would give him a chance to direct one of its future efforts.

Since I’m addressing the higher realms of circus art, I’m reaching back to honor my all-time favorite circus program magazine cover illustrator, a man named Walter Bomar, who designed prolifically for many major magazines, and for, now and then, John Ringling North, turning out my all-time favorite cover, seen here. It’s a fitting tribute, I believe, to Lashua and his younger colleagues seeking new modes of direction for timeless tricks on aerial bars and off springboards, with clubs in hand or partners in motion. Perhaps the guy who conceived Birdhouse, patterning its visuals after the work of Diego Rivera, will enjoy this image, created by, of all mortals, an Ardmore, Oklahoma native.

Bravo, Chris, to your wonderful New York Welcome!

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