Saturday, August 20, 2016
Heavy Scripting at the Circus: Ringling's Tediously Overwrought Out of This World Loses Heart in Space ... Animal Stars Save the Trip
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Out of This World
Oakland, August 20
Having just seen the new edition of Ringling Bros. Circus, Out of This World, I am filled with a disorienting mixture of exasperation and exhilaration, and, mostly a sadness for something so ambitious that left me so wanting
You can’t blame the Felds for trying. They are up against an increasingly jaded ticket buyer.
What they give us here is a tediously complicated sight and special effects show adding up, in its weaker frames, to much ado about nothing. If you want flash and lots of ensemble action on skates, you’ve got plenty of that. If you want substance and clarity, don’t expect much here. Perhaps this one was tailor made for the Disney on Ice moppets.
Out of This World strains to tell a story, much of it ill staged off to one side, that may have more potential in cinema. Since I did not buy the program, and could not understand all the announcements about it over a variable sound system, I will defer to a description of it on the website: “A heroic quest of good versus evil.” And how does that grab you? Opening segments run very slow.
How absolutely ironic, given the Felds stated need to compensate for the absence of elephants by breaking ground in new directions, that their first outing, post pachyderms, should realize its greatest appeal over the audience in old directions -- through its animal stars. Through two acts, in particular: The magnificent tiger and lion display of Alexander Lacey, and the Cossack-style horse riders. Yet another winning animal turn, no plot necessary, has Lacey working a mixed group in the one fixed ring, including goats and a jumping kangaroo, while dogs and pigs nearby delight the crowd. Ringling's website does not mention any of the acts by name.
Entering the arena, you are immediately placed in a very definite atmosphere that conveys the imagery of space travel. Opening music, pre-recorded, is very strong. When the band takes over and the animal acts hold court, the disconnect between the older fashioned circus and the rest of this overwrought hodgepodge is remarkable to behold: Circus, straight up, is far and away the more compelling force at work here.
I counted three standout routines: Lacey's cage display, the Cossack horse riders, and probably the best flying return act I've seen in years. The Tunziani Troupe. Multiple riggings with flyers working side by side, offering a wealth of twisting and turning, deliver the real thing. A thrilling climax has two triples executed simultaneously, the flyers moving perfectly in sync, AND in opposite directions, and both landing. Who could ever ask for anything more?
It is revealing to feel so calmly anchored by the Lacy cage act, the flyers, and the horse riders. This same feeling of steady and compelling focus, however, is hard to come by when heavy-handed ringmaster Iverson and others are hard at work trying to push a frivolous and plodding tale.
During the Cossack campaign, which lifts the show to a rousing end-point, I thought of the English equestrian Philip Astley, who invented the circus over two centuries ago. Here, his vision came brilliantly through: Power, speed, courage, agility, grace and gusto, and all in a ring. CIRCUS, my friend.
For me, this was the true story line. Compared to trying to make a circus into a lame play, the broad strokes of the best performances were far and away what moved the crowd. I was there to hear it and to share it. And when audiences leave this show, the memory of those acts will give them greater pause to question the validity of everything else in the coldly alien Out of This World.
Despite the high points, frankly, it was something of a pain to sit through to the end, but I did.
Ringling, come back to earth!
Overall rating: (out of four stars max) 2 stars