Thursday, September 15, 2011
More High-Energy Circus Flash from the Felds: Ringling’s "Fully Charged" Catches Creative Fire from China and Russia Down the Final Stretch
Circus Review: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey -- Fully Charged
Oracle Arena, Oakland, September 10.
Tickets: $15.00 - $100.00
Whenever you go to Ringling these days, you can almost always count on being dazzled by one or two, maybe several acts of remarkable novelty, usually from Russia or more likely China. You can also count on sitting through action that may leave you wanting, on even having to endure the occasional clunker. You'll be assaulted at nearly every turn by sensory overload from hyperactive lighting effects and periodic firework blasts to blaring ringmaster hyperbole approaching the pitch of a high school rally. All of which can make it feel as if the ballyhoo followed you into the tent and you are still being pitched a circus that you have already paid to see.
Fully Charged, the latest offering from the Feld family, delivers on all the above. So much so, that at times it nearly trips over itself in its excessive theatrical trappings. Curiously, it has been set into one of Ringling’s most schizophrenic floor layouts ever. Those ancient ring curbs (remember rings?) of late usually ignored, are this time around not only ignored for the most part, but conspicuously stacked in sections at the edges of the action where, by tradition, they would have been fully assembled, fully charged. Like recycled relics, they have a new calling this visit: to serve as mini bleachers for the adults and kids, probably from the VIP class, who are ushered out onto the arena floor midway through the first half to watch the show close up, virtually inside of it!
The absence of a clearly defined setting only adds to the impression of a traffic jam of half-baked staging concepts. Gosh, folks, when the entrances and/or exits are sometimes more interesting to watch than the actual acts themselves who make them, give Feld Entertainment credit for their trumping eye-candy. Costume design, full of brilliance, deserves special mention.
Okay, the year is 2011, not 1950. The competition out there is terrific, and that long long circus train bearing the words "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey" is not being funded by PBS pledge breaks. The Felds must be doing something right, right? They are reaching a viable demographic with both the old and the new.
For my money (a $25.00 ticket), down the initial stretch I found a number of the acts to be rather uninspiring. Include the tigers, hosted by Tabayara; two rings of pleasant liberty horses, and a pair of Russian strong men of moderately toned obesity who manipulate what is claimed to be a telephone pole. They return later in the program to manipulate each other in a rather gauche attempt at team contortion that may leave you wondering whether to gawk or giggle.
Clowning is a mixed bag as well, full of the acrobatic slapstick favored by the Felds over “character.” Outsiders Stanislav Knyazkov and Vasily Trifonov score nicely in their spoofing the strong man turn. Less amusing is clown alley’s efforts to change a huge light bulb, the angle being just trying to reach the bulb, which struck me as a one-note drill with an ill-placed payoff. I kept waiting for them to try unscrewing the damn thing, which they never did, or did I miss something? And then there's the promise of what initially appears to be an old fashioned clown walkaround. But walk it does not. All eight or nine joeys occupy fixed positions around the track, as if frozen in time, each working his bit(s) in morosely lit shadows. Strange.
Of no help to this mediocre first half onslaught is one of the cheesiest musical scores I’ve yet encountered at a Ringling party, which includes a pedestrian title song. New ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott fills a generically directed role with cookie cutter efficiency.
To be fair, before the interval we have been amply engaged by a winning three-act display of juggling; kept more than awake by the high wire exploits of the Danguir Troupe (if only they weren’t placed along the side of the track, depriving decent sight lines to hundreds of patrons); and given a few goose bumps, I charitably suppose, by a double wheel of death essayed by the Fernandez brothers. By the way, when might this strained ritual be sent on a sabbatical?
Okay, onto the good news. After a 25 minute intermission, the show finally takes off and delivers, brimming with inventive action and gusto that makes what has already passed seem even more passe.
With the entrance of the Yakubou Troupe of strap aerialists, the show bolts off into a bold creative arc, and the band responds effectively with excellent scoring. The ambitious Asians fill the air with captivating flight patterns. Their tricks might be simple, but they’re fresh to the eye and therefore eye-opening. A visual knockout. Heck, the whole thing felt to me like Barbette-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil- on-acid; it felt like Ringling years ago when production and ring artistry were more perfectly merged and balanced. Another last half highlight are the 20 lithe acrobats of the Tianyicheng troupe from China who work on “bounce stilts” leaping over and around each other, and tossing basketballs into hoops with clever collaboration. Yes, like it or not, even under the big top, China seems more and more poised to rule the world. American “circus schools,” and what are you doing these days?
Elephants win the crowds affection behaving charmingly not inside the ignored rings, but around their residual imagery. And, finally, a third powerhouse rush of true circus energy is thrown up by the Negrey ground acrobats from Russia, who worked on Ringling's Boom-A-Ring! — a socko ending to a show whose final frames catch fire. Literally too, for a part of the blaze is fueled by Brian Miser’s melodramatically staged Human Fuse, a nifty upgrade to the old cannon trick.
As I said in the beginning, under the wearying sledgehammer spell of the Felds, there are crowning benefits. As disorienting as this opus can feel, there is much to recommend here, especially for today’s moppet market raised on sound bytes and flashing i-gadgets.
Overall rating (out of 4 stars tops) 3 stars
Showbiz David explores how circuses are scouted, produced, directed, sold to the public, and too often disingenuously "reviewed" in his forthcoming book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide.