This first appeared on November 4, 2010
It grows on you in its own ersatz reality show way. It held my attention, despite a feeling that this story could have been as effectively told in half the time.
There is little of the drama here we expect of such an entity. Don't think the intensely emotional making of Cirque du Solei's Varekai on HBO several years back. Don't think even those contrived circus competition shows on TV. And certainly don't think The Greatest Show on Earth.
Circus is pleasant and agreeable. And not a little informative. Guest director that season, Steve Smith (left) is a winning asset, a likable spark plug, full of zest -- a nuts and bolts man for a show whose theme and its manifestations throughout are never adequately explained. These first two hours end with the company being told, they show has a new name: "Change on." They ended up calling it "Play On."
Luckily for the producers, who take a visitor's approach, aiming their cameras all over the lot in search of whatever human interest sparks may fly over the sawdust, they caught a few. Here are some sparks, as well as some surprises:
* A young prop hand intimating that he might plant a bomb in the big top and getting hauled off to jail.
* Paul Binder throwing a temper tantrum with the horse riders. Overall, the portrait of Binder here is a refreshingly unexpected one, showing him firmly in charge, though a curiously tepid impresario. Read on.
* Paul Binder's odd aversion to danger under the tent. Somebody needs to introduce the man to the real world of circus. One of his comments to an artist: "Don't do anything more than is absolutely safe." Another comment, stresses "simple and safe."
* Barry Lubin's intrusive ego. He nags new clown Glen Heroy in questionable ways, much in the vein of an insecure stage director blocking out an actor's every move, every gesture. I only hope that new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy (did I spell the name right?) loves the Grandma character, for if he doesn't I can see an epic a clash of egos.
* A contract for a flying act stipulating a triple -- signed by an act obviously ill prepared to deliver. (They did not catch it when I saw the show.) Interesting to see Smith making clear his feeling that no way should these flyers, a mix of pros and rank amateurs, end the performance; they are moved up near the beginning of the second half, though that too will change by the time the show reaches New York.
For these reasons -- wondering what next I might discover (the human interest stories are fairly lame) -- Circus held my attention. I also observed a natural team compatibility reminding me of a well-worn marriage between Binder and Christensen, who often appear sitting together in the seats monitoring rehearsals and making notes. Their body language speaks millions.
Most bothersome is the time given to one performer made to appear as if at any moment he could be axed from the company, an unrealistic story line that feels gratuitous. That would be the new clown, Glen, revealing at intervals all of his fears that the gig will fail. When finally he faces an audience, he holds his own, proving a natural flair for circus buffoonery. Binder is pleased, telling him, "We have found a new character for the show."
To my knowledge, he is no longer around.
This PBS entry treats circus in softer moods, absent the older fashioned hyperbole of tent show bombast and drama. Which probably suits BAC -- its finest opus that I've seen by far was the enchantingly surreal 2004-2005 Picturesque. In its weaker frames, Circus calls to mind, for me, how lackluster I found the book Mud Show to be, because it spent too much time doodling in dull backyard details.
It's good that BAC co-founders Binder and Christensen will have this television documentary as a record of their admirable achievement keeping their show on a higher road for thirty-plus years.
Bomb or no bomb, I'm waiting for the second of the three part series next Wednesday.