Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday Morning Out of the Past: Rare Kenneth Feld Sightings: Big Show Boss Spotted in Action on Coney Lot


Through a bizarre chain of flukes as preciously disclosed, fate delivered me onto the Coney Island lot of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opening night of their summer long show under a tent, Illuscination.

Sunny evening. Early arriving, I wandered into the outdoor food and rest area, past a special VIP tent. Little did I know how close I was to the Feld of Felds. When I discovered him hobnobbing with a gaggle of upscales around a stand–up fast food table, shamelessly I fell into the reluctant mode of a virtual peeping paparazzi, albeit with camera in pocket. I moved this way and that, stealing weaselly glances from afar in an effort to view the goings of a true big top tycoon.

Mr Feld was primly attired in a rather drab suit. Conservatively groomed. We are not talking metro sexual. He struck me as stout-hearted, strong on his feet and vigorously engaged. His animated manner that of a carnie pitchman, similar, as I recall, to my one fleeting Irvin Feld sighting years ago. Bear with me here, World, if I seem to be “obsessing,” but my only aim is to journalistically bear witness. Now, at this point, there was not much I could do, so I circled the power zone like an invading mosquito of slim prospects, keeping my stalking wings as under control as possible. I wondered what my subject might say that could be discretely overheard. But I failed miserably to zoom in, as they say; That sort of observational space crashing — “Well, there he is, the man himself! A fun question, Mr. Feld? Any exciting new productions planned with ex-CIA operatives?” — does not suit my shy nature. Camera stayed in pocket.

But then something substantial happened; He turned about and walked away, alone, without lackey or Pinkerton, toward the concession tent. I was struck by how remarkably short he is. I’d only seen him once before, back in the 1970s standing quietly at the edge of the performance area at a Florida venue monitoring the spec as it circled the track. The show was then, New York bound, still a work in progress. He struck me that evening as the essence of calm.

Compared to my distant mental snapshot, I had not imagined Kenneth Feld being so short, nor so animated either. Actually, one might say that this lack of height adds an overcompensating flair to his persona. The youthfully invigorated circus king ambled with the slightly swaggering air of an innocent kid maximizing an overstepped gait to project power and confidence. His glib saunter brought to mind Charlie Chaplin's Everyman character.

Through the maze of patrons and circusy things for sale I followed sheepishly after, seeking additional insights that did not rise above the level of vapid. (I report; you deride.). He slipped into the tent, and I lost contact.

He resurfaced to lead a pre-show appearance by the Family Feld, scripted and staged for the entire house. Out strode, with a statuesque air of authority and privilege, Mr. Feld and stately daughters -- counting three if I am correct, each as I recall looming taller than her dad, a rather charming irony, and neither wearing drab. Feld's appreciative address to the crowd, great to be back at Coney, etc., was strong and steady, clear and to the point. And with that, I concluded that I was done with him.

But, as fate would have it, I was not. The Gods of petty power worshiping rituals had invaded my chronic indifference, at last.

As previously sworn to my faithful four followers, in seeking relief from my crummy $10 seat only one row off the floor (too many late arrivers blocking my view), and with the sympathetic reluctance of one young usher, I stole into a better section of empties. At intermission, I discovered Mr. Feld once more (his now familiar backside, that is), standing right there in the aisle on my row conversing with an entourage of corporate and/or religious associates. Then, once more on his own, he made his way down the steps in a carefree manner. Moments later, I noticed him sauntering happily around the ring on his way out, and holding hands with a woman whom I assumed to be his wife. Together, they lent the impression of young marital bliss.

Now, we are close to the target moment. The piece de resistance! The second half is about to begin. I notice that our subject under surveillance has returned and is now sitting on the aisle directly across from the person in the chair next to mine. (For those logistically challenged, I am sitting two seats off the aisle.)

Alright, journalism is about to ascend the heights of its sacred calling. Comes now, at last, my most revealing sighting. Are you ready for the revelation of revelations? Count this your right of passage, this bright shining insight your day and your night. Your holy grail, your wind, your sail, your morning coffee and snail. Drum rolls! Trumpets! A full hallelujah fanfare, Maestro Evans, if you please!...

I happened to glance once (and only once) to my right: Exactly this I observed: Kenneth Feld was seated, well composed in his chair, eagerly watching the show.




(photos, from the top: my original seating area; the section I crashed]

First published July 28, 2010

Thursday, July 27, 2023

How Hollywood Wreaks Havoc on Broadway Musicals --- Flies Higher Creating Its Own

 

LATEST EXAMPLE of how Hollywood can turn a Broadway smash into a 5-star bomb is Cats, based on the Broadway phenomenon, and declared by one of its hissing critics (20% Rotten Tomatoes) , “catastrophic.”  I saw the bloated stage show once, and once was more than enough.  And, no I am not a knee-jerk Andrew Lloyd Weber hater – I saw Phantom of the Opera five times. 

FROM THE WOBBLY  get-go, musicals are like rambunctious children refusing to grow up. And even when they manage to bust Broadway and grab a few Tony's on the run, chances are, most of them that make it back to revival row will be subjected to “rethinking” and “re-imagining,” by self-appointed experts, who are just as likely to convert  good-enough material into ground breaking drivel.   And then there is Tinseltown – beware!  All that money, all those lavish sets!  All those interfering stars and marketing hustlers behind the scenes pushing a stage darling into an overwrought embarrassment  — everything that a musical does not need.  The producers of Cats promised "astonishing new technology." Can you spell   o v e r  - p r o d u c e d? 

 It's About the Songs, Stupid!


WHENEVER I GO near a movie adaptation, I best try forgetting that I ever saw the original stage show. But with The  King & I,  how can I not be shocked by the criminal absence of three Rodgers and Hammerstein gems -- I Have Dreamed, My Lord and Master, and  the comic masterpiece,  Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?  High Treason! Worse yet,  we are made to  suffer through a tediously long middle section, devoid of song, about Anna and the King  getting ready to host their English visitors, which feels more like a period piece in  minuet-land, all of which leads to a tiresomely repetitious 14-minute-long ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas.             
 
The Shocking Truth About Maria

I AM NOW going to movie musicals, or they to me, with but one default expectation: Just entertain me and keep all the talking down to a bare a minimum. This new attitude was hastened by disclosures in recent years of how the The sound of Music is almost a total fairy tale.  Did you know that the real Maria could not play a guitar? That the real Maria did not teach those Trapp darlings how to sing Do-Re-Mi? That the real Maria did no fall in love with the Captain, and that the real Maria  was hated by the Captain’s real-life oldest daughter?  
.

  Climb Every Mountain – At Your Own Risk
.
OH AND YES, among other shameless fabrications, had the family actually  followed the dictates of Climb Every Mountain and escaped over those singing hills,  they would have ended warbling out their favorite things in the backyard of one Adolf Hitler.       

IN FACT,  by one account, the Trapp boarded a street car for Italy; by another, they walked out of town.  I will give Oscar Hammerstein II a pass on this almost fraudulent  glorification.  He  did not write the libretto, but composed more great lyrics under the cloud of a cancer diagnosis.  One of Broadway’s true giants would be gone, only nine months after his last musical reached Breakaway. 

AND THEN CAME the movie, which only made the musical sweeter and longer.  And the critics  even nastier.  They tossed out the score’s two most sophisticated songs, numbers that had given the original work a little dramatic relief — How Can Live Survive? and No Way to Stop It.  With Oscar gone, Dick composed two ditties of his own, one, the atrociously awful Something Good.  By then, the critics were onto this flimsy con job,  Pauline Kael calling it a “sugar coated lie,“ Bosley Crowther,  “romantic nonsense and sentiment.” Judith Crist deemed the film suitable  for  "the five to seven set and all their mommies.”


                          Cary Grant's Cole Porter Charade

 
ALL OF THESE revelations have given me a reformed disposition to enjoy, guilt-free, whatever Hollywood may have to offer, however flagrantly untrue.  Creating from scratch, Tinseltown  would whip up a string of captivating originals through the 1949s-1950s.  

SO LET US advance to another fairy tale (pun not intended) masquerading as a true-to-life bio, the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Back in 1946, had the producers even wanted to, a Hollywood code would have disallowed them from depicting any element of Porter’s well-known homosexuality.  And so the film focuses on Porter’s platonic relationship to wife Linda, with whom he spent much time abroad traveling museums and sites, oddly not shown here.

WHAT DOES Night and Day do right?  Plenty.  First and foremost, this bright winning treatment in rich technicolor from Warner Bros. keeps those fabulous Porter songs rolling steadily along, the haunting title tune, a recurring motif that I never tire of hearing.  Glib supporting players include Monte Wolly, Eve Arden,  and Mary Martin.  Cary Grant’s charm is a pleasure unto itself.  

 
ALL OF WHICH makes this treat so much easier to love than De-Lovely, the 2004 film about Porter that in its own way may be  just as much fairy tale, working overtime to build up a great heterosexual love between Cole and Linda.  Director Irwin Winkler's  straining overreach can't help itself -- speculatively, Porter experts would argue  --  from having Cole impregnate Linda, who soon after miscarries.  In fact, the real Linda did suffer a miscarriage.  But she was a social climber and lesbian who latched onto Porter's rising star, and pursued her own affairs with women while Cole pursued his, relentlessly -- not a one of them significantly fleshed out here.  No wonder the film split the critics (48% Rotten), Rex Reed libeling it  "phony .... wooden, artificial, contrived." 
                                                                                           .
Another white wash? Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd as Cole and Linda
"De-Lousy" -- Los Angeles Times
 
BACK TO Cary Grant. To its credit, Night and  Day effectively dramatizes Cole’s tragic fall from a horse, and this scene  brought tears to my eyes, knowing that, through dozens of operations  on his right leg to merely save it,  he would yet turn out more marvelous  songs.  Kiss Me Kate gave us, in my view, his greatest ballad ever, So In Love.  (I have never known a piece of music and a circus aerialist to connect so thrillingly as when Ringling star Gerard Soules flew to the  pounding pulse of this mesmerizing number.)  A noteworthy Cole  Porter 1950 flop, Out of This World, supplied an abundance of the man’s magic, including a song dropped on the road to opening night, From This Moment On, which Frank Sinatra and others would later immortalize: Two more Broadway  hits, in Can Can, and Silk Stockings, kept Cole Porter’s name alive in the l950s.                                              

Frank Sinatra’s Nearly Perfect Joey 

FRANK SINATRA'S  Pal Joey on screen is so good, I have bought the DVD.  Purists complain of its botching up the original, in which, in the end, Joey walks off alone; this, they rightly argue, marked a realism that distinguished Pal Joey from others of the day.  In the movie, Joey walks off arm in arm  with Linda English (Kim Novak in perfect form). And, all the years, later, I say – so what.  I have grown to like the sunnier ending, and, besides, how could anyone dump Kim Novak?  The witty, worldly screenplay does not flinch from  making clear the kept nature of Joey’s relationship to Vera Simpson (Rita Hayward)  All players are superb.  And what a sublime treat  are the songs of Rodgers and Heart, especially those crooned by Sinatra, then at his vocalizing prime.

Through the heather on the hill ... 
Never was a movie musical more enchanting
    
WITH THE exception of Pal Joey and Brigadoon, none of my other other favorite movie musicals are Broadway adaptions, which usually run well over two hours — Sound of Music at 174 minutes  may be longer on film than on stage. South Pacific at 166, My Fair Lady at 172.  One thing my favorites have in common is that they all clock in under two hours, thank you: The Band Wagon, Gigi, Singin' in the Rain, Holiday Inn. Joey wraps up in 114 minutes, Brigadoon in 108, Singin’ at 103. 

HOLLYWOOD MAY have learned that telling the truth won’t get you a crowd.  A recent big screen hit was Hugh Jackman’s historically empty The Greatest Showman, another high-flying fairy tale makeover with a winning modern score,  that at least in one respect meets my criteria: Only 105 minutes long.

And that’s entertainment!


1.20.20

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Circus Vargas My Way Comes ... Maybe Zoppe, Too .... And then Comes Ringling --- If Philly Comes Through

Finally, a circus in my own backyard!

At last, I can see Circus Vargas in a more Idyllic setting, “Idyllic” meaning not an anonymous mall over asphalt, or that seedy lot from hell by a harsh freeway in Oakland’s netherworld —  but closer to an open field -- the (comparatively) gorgeous scrappy old Petaluma Fairgrounds, prominently located near the middle of a charming town.

They're slated for a week of shows in late August.   And now that I once again have my  own wheels, I can make it there in good time.  I’ll be getting there in my Lyft (model yet to be determined), one hour instead of the three it would have taken had I roughed it out on public transit.

Those delightful Zoppes , who played the same lot last year, will be trouping in Northern California again, so I’m hopeful they’ll spring some other dates closer.

On the return of Ringling

Yes, Alice, there is a greatest show on earth, and it's coming back later this year,  though not under a tent.  Going against modern trends, they are still sticking to the mammoth hard tops that were increasingly harder for them to even half half way fill — back in the days of lions and tigers and elephants — even dogs and ponies.  All of that older stuff erased from Kenneth Feld’s hard drive, in favor of — as I see it — Circus du Ringling on steroids

The name Nicole is nowhere in evidence. Now, the name is Juliette.   And here, I had assumed that Nicole was the heir apparent.   Me wonders if she disagreed.

    What can we expect?

From Kenneth Feld, to the Associated Press:

“We knew we were going to come back. We didn’t know exactly how,” says Kenneth Feld, chair and chief of Feld Entertainment. “It took us a long time to really delve in and take a look at Ringling in different ways. It became a re-imagination, a rethinking of how we were going to do it.”

From the company:

“A group of 75 performers from 18 countries will carry out the acts, which combine artistry, skill and strength. Some will perform jumps, runs and other tricks on a wire high above the ground. The wire is stretched into a triangular path more than seven and a half meters up in the air.

‘Flying trapeze artists will also cut through the air way up high, flipping as they move. Others perform acts on self-turning wheels, bicycles, unicycles and skateboards”.

Reviving so little

Why  have I not heard or seen a single news item about this?  Why the total silence?  It makes me wonder if the media for some reason is against it.

This will take guts to bring this off – with so much that in the public’s mind stood for CIRCUS no longer there. I do believe that Kenneth Feld has the resources and the adaptability to make changes if necessary.  He is wisely  staying away at first from  major spotlights. This way, he can avert embarrassing publicity if his first reboot backfires.

Five stars for daring-do.  And five more  for having our own Wesley Wonders, the One Wheel Wonder, on the all-human (not sure about “binary”) bill.

As I see it, they may need to infuse the proceedings with plenty of levity and clowning, for this high-tech heavy may get mired  in too too  serious a tone.    

Let it Roll!

 
Here's their route, which I share with you in the late great tradition of Don Marcks and the Biggerstaff’s much missed Circus Report.  They’re selling tickets up through Philly, into next February.  Why the stop gap?  A safety value to fold or re-think if the first dates fail expectations?   Pardon me for being prematurely paranoid, but Philadelphia is in the state of Pennsylvania.  And it was in that state at Pittsburgh, where the big top fell in 1956.

Best of all, Ringling is back in operation, and this alone may send a message that circus is still a viable option.  Kind of, a little .. It would be like Apple dumping i Phones or tablets from its offerings, only to bring them back, but vastly emasculated. Enjoy looking forward!       

 Bossier City, LA
Sep 29 - Oct 1, 2023

Cleveland, OH
Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Oct 6 - 8, 2023

Milwaukee, WI
Fiserv Forum
Oct 13 - 15, 2023

Pittsburgh, PA
PPG Paints Arena
Oct 20 - 22, 2023
            
Cincinnati, OH
Heritage Bank Center
Oct 27 - 29, 2023

Rosemont, IL
Allstate Arena
Nov 3 - 5, 2023

Kansas City, MO
T-Mobile Center
Nov 10 - 12, 2023

Detroit, MI
Little Caesars Arena
Nov 17 - 19, 2023

Baltimore, MD
CFG Bank Arena
Nov 24 - 26, 2023

Indianapolis, IN
Gainbridge Fieldhouse
Dec 1 - 3, 2023

St. Louis, MO
Enterprise Center
Dec 9 - 10, 2023

Oklahoma City, OK
Paycom Center
Dec 15 - 17, 2023

Tampa, FL
Amalie Arena
Jan 5 - 7, 2024

Orlando, FL
Amway Center
Jan 12 - 15, 2024

Jacksonville, FL
Veterans Memorial Arena
Jan 19 - 21, 2024

Sunrise, FL
FLA Live Arena
Jan 27 - 28, 2024

Greensboro, NC
Greensboro Coliseum
Feb 2 - 4, 2024

Greenville, SC
Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Feb 9 - 11, 2024

Philadelphia, PA
Wells Fargo Center
Feb 16 - 19, 2024

Brooklyn, NY
Details coming soon!

Newark, NJ
Belmont Park, NY
Bridgeport, CT
Buffalo, NY
Boston, MA
Worcester, MA
Wilkes Barre, PA
Providence, RI
Hartford, CT
Columbus, OH
Phoenix, AZ
Tucson, AZ
Austin, TX
San Antonio, TX
Houston, TX
Dallas, TX
Fort Worth, TX
Ontario, CA
Anaheim, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Oakland, CA
San Jose, CA
Sacramento, CA
Denver, CO
Salt Lake City, UT
Las Vegas, NV
Tulsa, OK
Little Rock, AR
Grand Rapids, MI
State College, PA
Albany, NY
Manchester, NH
Allentown, PA
Charleston, WV

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Brit Circus Kings Keep Rings Rocking with Foreign Talent, Aggressive Showmanship. Two Giants Among Them, Now Gone ...

Circus Funtasia

The old and the new, one going, another coming.  First, to acknowledge here the passing of “Doktor John Haze,” as John Hayes Mabley was known, a dynamo showman known for his hard-edged Circus Extreme that fielded  UK’s biggest big top.
          

                                          Circus Extreme

Haze was considered the nation’s reigning circus mogul after the late Gerry Gottle, with whom he founded another long-running  hit —  their runaway success, Circus of Horrors,  billed the “world’s longest running alternative circus show.” Thirty years on, and still playing to sold out crowds. 

 
 Doktor Haze
 

Modern-Day Barnums: Cottle and Haze

A full menu showman not of the Montreal class, the dexterous Haze promoted a truly daring stunt over the sainted Thames, balancing 16 men 150 feet above the famed river in a “human mobile.” Had one of them slipped , the whole lot would have gone down.  Actually, going soft here, I am supposing that water may form a safer landing surface than your standard trapeze net — that is, for those who know how to swim.  A chilling stunt, nonetheless.  It speaks to the man’s gritty, knock 'em dead showmanship.
 
At 12, Haze teamed up with his dad --- just released from prison (reasons not given) –  to join Circus Della Beck in Ireland.  There he learned how to swallow fire, and how to fake reading gullible  minds in a crowd.   A thread here?  Again, echoes of the tough midways that once prefaced earthy tent shows of spangled glories.  They gave you the dirt. They gave you the stars.  Ballet and theatre interlopers will never understand.

In his random early 20s, Haze dabbled in rock, forming Flash Harry, its players turning circus-type tricks while riffing on.


These British impresarios strike me as adaptive, flexible, and prone to inventing as they go. And maybe more open to collaboration. What bothers/disappoints/puzzles  me about them is their nearly total deference to the no-animals format (three shows still carry domestics) .  Maybe they know something. They’ve produced shows abroad, and they’ve managed UK tours of both the Chinese and Moscow state troupes. Haze for a time ran the latter. You have an idea, comrade? Heck with the “C” word —  Let’s talk! Da?

During the crippling Corona look-downs, Haze led a campaign to unlock them, clear up to the front door of 10 Downing Street. Boris! Are you in there? Boris, beleaguered big tops calling! Boris  said yes, UNLOCK, and a nation of circuses were spared collective implosion.
.
Okay, your turn, Tracy Jones!  Her take on the biz  tells of a nation weak on the talent needed to energize the rings of today’s successfully produced shows.  Sounds a whole lot like over here?

Tracy slipped into the life by accident, when taking care of horses for the French stunt rider, Gerard Naprous. When he landed a four-week gig in Gandey’s Circus, she followed him as a horse groom, and fell for the whole party.  Told mum, “I’m going to join the circus.” Mum  put her and bag on a train.  She stayed with Gandeys for the next twenty eights years. Phillip the paymaster threw blades within inches of her fearless face, and she took them. “I trusted him completely.”  She learned the basics of trapeze and of trick riding on horseback.  Toured with  Gandey’s Circus through Shanghai, Honk Kong, and Dubai.  

All of which well-grounded our Tracy to start up her very own show, Circus Funtasia, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.  The ring is gone, in its place, a rectangular stage.  Our ringmistress is  giddy and remains optimistic. 

On Saturday nights, the tent is reset for the adult-only Cirque du Vulgar. I love it! A clever play on the Montreal formula. I can imagine a legion of restless adults sick and tired of du Precious and flocking to kink and gore for du relief.  


Biggest problem running Funtasia?  Tracy wishes there were more (like, how about a few) Brits willing to join up. “It’s really, really  hard to find British people who want to travel on a circus.... We’re in the ring one moment, selling popcorn the next." More than that, a dearth of skills and training among the hometown pool. “We [also] have a Cuban troupe of gymnasts because in Cubans they train them from very young age.”

Those communist powers do have a way with steel-handed restraint that fosters the disciplines needed to produce competitive thrills.  Now, without naming shows (you will know who I am talking about) in freer places we have kids from today’s snowflake generations being harnessed to safety ropes while performing relatively simple feats barely as high off the ground as a low wire.  Blame the whole damn thing on the Russian Revolution of 1917.
 
Tracy’s strategic planning for the next ten years? “Just carry on and enjoy every minute of it.”

Ah, what a lovely note to go out on.

A young Gerry Cottle starting out. How I wish I had met him.  

Acknowledging my sources here-- but one: All of the above and the quotes were gleaned from Douglas McPherson’s fine profiles of Haze and Jones, as published in London’s  The Stage.

Friday, July 07, 2023

Chasing Circuses Through The Killing Fields of America

 
How guilty should I feel for passing up two  circuses that recently played in my area?

There was a time before the streets were so randomly dangerous. A time when, at the age of 15 and alone, I walked a mile or two down a Richmond, California street before day break,  to reach Ringling Bros circus rising.  Don’t blame a mass shooting being the cause of the tents having already  been pitched  –  they’d snuck into town the day before.

Back then, after getting off a bus somewhere, I’d  walk the rest of the way for Carson Barnes or Beatty-Cole. With each passing step, my heart jumped higher.   (No wonder I love to walk!)

Today, the same landscape is riddled with the bullets of an America going mad. Bullets from drive-bys and shoot outs between passing cars. Bullets into school yards and churches and malls.  Bullets of anger and greed, defiance and retaliation.  Bullets from, if you ask me, suicide protesters. This year, there have been over two hundred mass shootings. So, how do we rank up against other countries?   This I got serious about.     

And here’s the top ten from one of the reports I found. Not sure what the numbers mean, but the contrast should suffice.

 1. United States – 101

2. Russia – 21
3. France – 8
4. Germany – 5
5. Canada – 4
6. Finland – 3
7. Belgium – 2
8. Czech Republic – 2
9. Italy – 2
10. Netherlands – 2
 

Stunning? Yes, gawk and behold.  

How does that make you feel about, as many claim it to be,  the world’s oldest democracy? 

UniverSoul Circus was inexplicably ignored by a local media that treats Black History Month more like Black History Year. The show played the iffy Hilltop Mall in Richmond.   All but one TV station appears to have ignored  “America black owned circus,” as it bills itself. I had half way toyed with the idea of risking it.  The lack of coverage, of a single poster, did nothing to push me on.  In fact, I forgot all about it.
           
Caballero  is now playing, on a wretchedly ugly patch of weeds crammed between a freeway on one side and a parking lot for the Coliseum on the other.  I went there once, to take in  UniverSoul, and have since preferred  avoiding it.

But now, I have better options.  After going for decades without a car, I found the perfect one for me: The make is Lyft, the model, whatever the car driven by the driver answering my call. Heck, I can get from my apartment in Oakland to the front door of my boyhood home in Santa Rosa (owned by my niece, Lisa, who now rents it for short terms) for as little as $70. And the ride takes one third the time it would take were I sharing public transit seating with bums and junkies and sex crazed wackos.

I might have lyfted myself to the Caballero tent, but, after the show, how to tell Lyft where to find me?  By three low-life misfits in hoodies squatted near a scrappy blob of a tent that does not sing CIRCUS?

Perhaps there is only one thing worse than too little freedom: too much.  

Here in the State of Insanity, I don’t walk to the circus anymore.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

What Circus Extreme Teaches Us: Don't Give Up on the Past

This replay of my review last year, in honor of the recent passing of the show's  multi-talented producer, John Hayes Mabley, known professionally as John Haze,  famed for his  Circus of Horrors and considered UK's greatest showman since Jerry Cottle. 

It has been a long while, perhaps too long, for a circus to so directly ignore virtually everything that Cirque du Soleil has come to stand for in the public’s mind.  UK-based Circus Extreme is not a knock off. Not a made-in-Montreal souffle. This is the genuine article, unafraid to get down and daring, and a little messy around the edges, without softening its impact by pretentious allusions to stage or ballet.

Owner-producer John Haze’s welcome audacity is more an attitude than a revolution, drawn from the roots of circus – when sawdust literally flew out of the ring.  Circus Extreme is, when you think about it, only extreme in its daring-do to go for the gut in a show largely shaped the older fashioned way, albeit with modern  scoring and active lighting that gives it a darker, dare I say more hip James Bondian feel.

Pinito Del Oro, above, and Harold Alzana, below, thrilled Ringling audiences in the 1950s

In a pitch- dark tent which seats up to 3,000, a cool first frame assaults our senses with flaming yellow screens and flashing blue strobes.  Female faces appear in small windows. A woman enters to sing a song, and in a sensitive bow to shared tensions beyond the tent, performers silently parade, bearing placards that read, samples, HOPE— FREEDOM — EVERY MIND MATTERS.

Underscoring the first segments is a haunting abstract soundscape that I wish could have extended deeper into production.  While the musical selections overall are not particularly memorable,  they do  stay fairly relevant to the shifting moods.

A man cavorts inside a large ring. Sexy exotic dancers take a brief roll, and a pair of roller skaters take to a small circular platform. The show is now on.

The talent lineup proves to be something of  a mixed bag,  veering from the banal (a labored low wire workout not ready for prime time)  to absolute brilliance – one of the greatest juggling turns I have seen in years.   Each act is briefly prefaced by a line of cool dancers to variable effect.  The performance winds it self up on into one of the most undeniably griping payoffs to any circus I have yet beheld: Hip young motorcycle riders, gunning up a ramp and catapulting themselves into space over  the globe of  death.

I am reminded of an old Barnum & Bailey poster depicting a small auto somersaulting off one ramp to land on another.  We are persuasively reconnected to the  primal lure of the big top.  Circus Extreme's madly fearless young riders deliver a wham bang finish to a high-tension show, all of which together forms a rather mesmerizing collage of bodies artfully in motion.

This may not be a perfectly rendered work, but a perfectly arresting sampler of what circus crowds live for. And let’s give John Haze more than a little slack here: The war in Ukraine, not to mention the lingering chill of Covid, has crimped his producing hand and narrowed his scouting options, critically depriving him of the Russians and Chinese, while leading him deeper into South America — a viable source of top grade wizardry.

For my eyes, five highlights merit solid respect:

* the exceptional aerial Aerial Duo Polischuck.  I judge this kind of act as much by the fluidity of transitions from one item to the next as by what they actually do.  Their mastery in both realms left me thoroughly satisfied.           

   * The tremendous dexterity of ball bounce juggler Tony Garcia. Built like a wrestler, he delivers a powerfully compelling display utilizing (if I counted right) six balls and a little fire. Those balls sometimes look like a dozen or more, and when he descends a small staircase, they are bouncing with him every step of the way!

 *  The refreshing high wire exploits of a crack South American troupe, fellows who attack the narrow strand with eager agility, passion and pizazz.  The dance. They scamper. They jump over each other. 

 *  Henry the clown, in a genuinely charming comedy pantomime, set in a small cafĂ©.  He plays the smitten waiter to a lovely patron.  It’s a perfectly wrought little masterpiece, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the circus.  Pure gold.

Henry also excels as a surprise member of the high wire act.  He is badgered into taking a go at it up there.  He turns out to be as accomplished as his South American brothers -  riding a tiny unicycle, taking part in perilous pyramids, and jumping rope at hurricane speeds  (his record is said to be 211 in 60 seconds). 

On the ground as an audience participation buffoon, Henry keeps his lively presence felt with a fairly predicable bag of tricks, all except for being chased around the ring by a loud buzzing bee, which put a grin on my face.

* The motorcycle  riders, catapulting themselves off the start ramp, into space through increasingly more daring stunts, and onto the end ramp into near- darkness on the other side.  This is what thrills the crowds, period.  What re-energies their love of circus and brings them back.

This gutsy atmosphere cries out for a thundering roll around the ring of horses and acrobats. I see that previous editions have included animals.  John Haze may be building up a PETA-proof reputation, should he dare push the envelop deeper into history'  And the crowds might cheer him on.  Those muscular roots are never far from the surface, always hovering below,  never far.

In the end, the public will say, yes, come back!  It could not happen in a more appropriate land than the birthplace of circus

***************
End notes: This review may not reflect what you actually see if you watch a video of the show.  To explain, wanting to watch the video a second time, I was clearly watching another video,  or another performance.  While the first video gave me a better view of Tony Garcia's act, the second one gave me a superior view of the bike riders flying over the globe. 

6.17.22

Monday, July 03, 2023

Movies in the Dark, An Exasperating Challenge to the Mentally Awake -- A Candle, Anyone?

 from out of the past ...

Can you guess the movie?  If you can get to the end of this post with your vision intact, there you will find the answer. 

LIGHTS OUT! Suicidally dark.  Idiotically dark.  Insanely dark.  The "Darkest Movie Ever" award, if there is to be one at the next Academy Awards, should go to the just released, The Batman.  "It's so shadowy," reports the Wall Street Journal, "the trick was making sure people could still see what's on the screen."  And how terribly thoughtful of them.

Add to this bloody blackout blockbuster a new mediocre entry from darker Disney called Encanto, meant, I think, for the kiddies.  I felt stuck inside swaths of shadowy gloom,  and I wanted to scream, WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE TURN THE DAMN LIGHTS  BACK ON!  It may prepare the Little Ones, already challenged  by diminished perceptions behind masks,  how to navigate their way through movie houses turning ever murkier --- where flashlights should be handed out upon entering, and where groping patrons may opt for brail apps. Welcome to the new dark ages at the bijou

From 2020.  By tragic accident, I put in for Arkansas on Netflix, believing the movie had been nominated for some big Academy Awards, or maybe by overhearing a talking voice on radio or TV raving it up.  Big  Big mistake. That I had to wait a long time to see it only added to my misconception of ground-breaking cinema. Those words should be banned for ten years.  So, I received the film in my mail box  today with high expectations.  At least here, in the room where I watched it, the lights were on.  I have this inconvenient fetish for movies I can actually see.

A few minutes after running it, I wanted to run from it.  Like  too many modern films,  this dog wallows in darkness.  These films should come with a medical alert: Some scenes in extended darkness may strain weak eyes, consult with your optometrist.  Another barely visible challenge that left my eyes groping was a Netflix series,  Better Call Saul.  Again, darkness prevailed. An no, my vision with glasses is perfectly fine.  One of the main characters is an older man who spends a lot of time not speaking, just maybe flexing a few wrinkles, real cool like. The closeup was meant, I charitably assumed, to convey the heavy heart, weary of it all and about ready to call it a life.  In that morosely dark set, I would have. 

 
See the figure lower right? That's Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes, I think, in Rules Don't Apply.  I would have opted for light bulbs in the 150 watt range.

The old classic film noir in black and white had lots of shadows, but the single contrast between the two colors made them much easier to watch. In color, today's imitators  swamp themselves into abject gloom, making me want to scream: TURN THE DAMN LIGHTS ON, YOU IDIOTS!

Losing patience, I headed to Rotten Apples, hoping to find some bad reviews, and then to feel not so impetuous about shutting down this  dreary valentine to Arkansas.  47% !  The state should sue.  Didn't Nellie Forbush in South Pacific hail from Little Rock?

I don't get it.  And I don't much care.  If filmmakers can't afford to pay for good lighting, the Hollywood censors should add another warning code: BAF: Bring a flashlight. 

The photo above.  Not sure which actor -- the film, J.Edgar, terrific to my eyes, but not to most of the critics. Maybe their flashlights blew a fuse, and they gave up.

9.20.2020 / 3.14.22