Originally posted 6/30/09
Circus Review: Big Apple Circus
Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, Long Island
Somewhere near the end of this year’s offering, I felt a strange sense of disorientation. I had just endured an acid rock drumming exhibition (which roused the crowd and struck me as oddly out of place) and was about to witness the Rodion Troupe, a group of pole vaulters from Russia, decked out in flowing white. Talk about musical whiplash and time warp — as if suddenly you are whisked back into the old Soviet Union at the circus watching a preciously choreographed number -- after being dragged through the loud seedy sixties. And I wondered as I sat there, where have I just been — and where am I going under this tent?
Alternately co-starring the audience, this year’s fizzy effort contains the usual good-natured elements of a typical BAC program: Grandmas’s charming intrusions; the safer animal acts by PC standards — horses and dogs – that tend to escape PETA’s wrath; and a general spirit of touchy feely audience engagement that borders in my skeptical view on pandering. But then again, I prefer the “virtuosity” of the individual artist, to which outdoing founder/artistic direct Paul Binder has long passionately alluded.
Here is the problem, I think: Of all the production elements at a circus, none has quite the same power to unify a dispirit assemblage of acts into a seemingly unified format as does music. So, how disappointingly ironic that Play On!, in its deference to music in many of its forms, should reap the unintended consequence of disunifying the action. I could never quite get a grip on the show. For example, that gratuitous rock number is made even more annoyingly irrelevant by the failure of the directors to link it to any real circus act, which might have been revelatory.
Or was it all the rain outside? Perhaps I needed a libretto, although I did not detect any trenchant underlying message. The clowning cut-ups were amusing for the most part, and the individual acts, though surprisingly slender in number, held their own fairly well, one by one. Overall, however, this was that moment when somehow the whole feels less than the sum of the parts.
Indisputably top of the class are the terrifically disciplined juggling LaSalle Brothers, who put out a tight, fast moving display of acrobatic maneuvers while keeping the clubs in motion. These guys are easily the show’s highpoint. Almost as notable, though in a softer vein, are a surprising entry from China, the Nanjing Duo. A beautiful young girl in toe shoes executes exquisite positions and on-pointe work on the shoulders of her steady male partner, all of it with a shimmering composure. And what a perfectly polished finish. During exit, they walk backwards out of the tent in a graciously posturing manner as finely crafted as their routine.
For me, the band was at its best riding jazz charts, as when it matched the idiosyncratic movements of low wire dancer and contortionist Sarah Schwarz. She is a cool creative figure, but, like the show itself, short on the bigger items that can seal the deal.
A pair of new funny faces belonging to Glen Heroy and Mark Gindick pack enough facetious punch to keep us interested in their returns, although I could have used less audience — or shill — intervention.
The Cortez flyers flew. As seems to be a troubling trend these tepid days, the triple specialist missed, fell, and did not try again.
I went hoping-expecting to see Grandma dancing in the rain, which she didn’t. And I want my money back. And, while on the subject, considering how much inexplicable power Barry Lubin wields over the show from directorial input as production consultant to marketing to performance time, his Grandma strikes me still as both an asset (she can be very funny — loved the portable ventilator she pulled out for an oxygen fix during a hokey dance contest) and a liability. Grandma, also played by Matthew Pauli when Lubin is out vacationing or fund raising, epitomizes a company perhaps too settled in its ingrown rituals. There is a staid air here of adherence to a particular mind-set.
Ringmistress Carrie Harvey, who appears now and then, is a bright shining presence who needs to be better placed in the show as a focal point.
In summation, by Big Apple standards, Play On!, directed more in the form of a variety show by Steve Smith with a deference to clowning and finding ways to engage the audience in silly ring play, is a small apple.
Overall Rating (out of 4 stars max): * * 1/2