Monday, August 16, 2010

In a Ringling Vice: Flashy Barnum's Funundrum Does Not Lack for Trying

Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Barnum's Funundrum!

Oakland Oracle Arena
August 12, 7:30 PM

Thinking back, only two nights ago, upon my varied reactions to this latest effort from the Felds, I am struck by how it veers and lurches back and forth between brilliance and banality. Consider:

* An aerial ballet so ingeniously original, so utterly enchanting and so sensitively scored, with the central focus given over to Duo Fusion from Argentina (seen in the photo above), that surely it would either bring the late great Barbete to tears of joy or bursts of envious rage.

* Some of the most gorgeously atmospheric lighting effects I’ve come across at a circus.

* By far the most embarrassingly fail-safe “high wire” act of protected marionette “daredevils” I’ve yet seen. The Russians, who present it, are surely the ones best qualified to terminate this pitifully pointless genre (danger up there, oh really?), for it was under their reformatted circus scene of the 1920s that the use of safety wires in performance, not just in practice, was born.

* About the finest original score that Ringling has produced in decades, much of the original music by Michael Picton and Lucian Piane so surprisingly varied for a Feld show, so rich to the ears. A trumpet solo during a cat act? Yes. The spec song, “Step Right Up,” is as toe taping as the best of Broadway’s Cy Coleman.

“ The opening splash of costumes and floats turning into a curiously ineffectual traffic jam without a destination. Well, where do you parade in a parking lot without even a single ring to march around?

* The sobering spectacle of dozens of patrons walking out early, beginning at the end of a flying trapeze act whose star flyer, Ivo Silva, Jr.'s attempt at the elusive quad gets a buildup so horrendous, you’d think Moses had returned to execute it himself. Alas, the Red Sea did not part. Silva came no where near, from what I could see, to caching the trick. Perhaps, by then, midway into the second half, those beating an early exit had simply grown tired of the sledgehammer showmanship, credit the hysterically overzealous ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson, something of a human hurricane. His repeated use of the famed slogan “greatest show on earth” only cheapened its luster and impact. I once believed in his potential. Not at the moment.

* One of the most uneventful big cage turns I’ve seen (blame PETA?), the tigers worked by Daniel Raffo

* The initially impressive overhead grids circling the performance area upon which images both pictorial and abstract are flashed, a la Times Square neon. At first, when circus posters appeared, I was inspired -- looking up form my most excellent seat, which I'd purchased for only $21.00. But near the end, when I had retreated to a higher elevation near the exit doors and was looking down upon trampoline acrobats through flowery images flashing on and off, the effect was distracting and seemed to telegraph producerly insecurity. They just can't let go of those videos.
* The comforting appearance, during intermission, of three actual rings, giving us, at last, a sense of having been placed somewhere. Soon to be no where again, after a mildly charming dog, pony, llama and elephant drill was over.

* The first time in Ringling history when I can recall the ringmaster asking the audience, “How are you enjoying yourselves so far?” And he was addressing possibly the smallest crowd I have yet seen at the Oakland arena. Not a bad crowd, mind you, but there were rows of empty seats here and there, not to mention that up to a third of the seats are not used owing to the truncated performance area. Another of Iverson’s blasts, “we have so much more to do,” came across as a veiled pitch to please stay seated and love us until the end.

“ An audience participation promo at the end of intermission for a Ringling video game. Will Peterson Peanuts yet land product placement with the greatest show on earth?

Now, look, there is actually a lot of fun to this show, most of it supplied by the amusing sight-gag clowns, first spoofing old side show attractions, later satirizing super heroes. I laughed. I giggled. I smiled. I tip my hat to Ringling Clown Alley creativity.

A group of Russians deliver exuberantly captivating workouts on three vaulting poles and, later, on a pair of springboards, with the guy on stilts a real ham. And there's a generous multi-act display of troupes of contortionists from around the globe wowing simultaneously. And the Flying Caceres, working from multiple swings, offer plenty of refreshing action.

The producers, not Kenneth but two of his daughters Nicole and Alana, more or less true to the Feld spirit, have ample fireworks ready to go off, as usual. And they are bent on hyping every item to the hilt, like a herculean build-up given the entrance of baby elephant, Barack. These windy intros by Iverson are like screaming ambulance sirens in the night. Feld & Feld just don’t know when to stop; Indeed, the final stretch is something of a slog, with too many overblown moments (like bringing out Barack), each suggesting a finale, so that the two last acts, a motorbike up the inclined wire followed by a so-so bounce fest on a trio of trampolines, feel strangely anti-climactic. And we start wondering, when will it ever really end? A tighter sleeker two-hour frame would likely demonstrate that less can be more.

It’s overproduced Feld through and through, with direction by Amy Tinkham lacking intelligent control and restraint. I envy those who live near Coney Island, where Ringling, deigning to appear in a single ring under a tent, is being forced to break many of its worst habits of excess. Being forced to produce, by default perhaps, its best shows. Big Bertha: get thee back under the big top!

Overall rating (out of 4 stars max): 2-1/2


Anonymous said...

I worked with duo fusion a couple of years agao, I thought they did an amazing hand to hand ,ground balancing was a tango..

the couple in the photograph look very different thn the duo fusion I know..

Rebecca Ostroff

Anonymous said...

Saw the show this weekend. Your review pretty much nailed it, particularly regarding the high wire and tiger acts ...

Thanks for the excellent blog.