Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun, Or So It Seems ...

Going Nuclear at Garden Bros. Circus Can Be Crazy Fun,  Or So It Seems ...
Kijome Hara with the World’s Smallest Man and Wini McCay

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Sledgehammer Showmanship on Parade: The Ringmaster Screams, The Music Drones On, and Circus Vargas Sinks to a New Mediocre

Circus Vargas -- Bonjour Paris
Seen at Corte Madera, CA, August 12, 1 pm
Tickets: $19 - $75 

Note: Website photos of the acts do not give names or bios.

What a difference a few critical seasons can make.   The Circus Vargas you first spot this year, with a state of the art tent, can hold its own in design with the best of them. From a distance it’s a wow.  Up close, you might be  charmed by the sight of comfy couch chairs on the midway. The prelude air sparkles.  


But all things in life do not always unfold to favor first impressions, right?  This will be a doubly challenging review to write. So those who prefer their reviews sunny side up are encouraged to go sunny side down and out of here,  while you have the chance.  I do not bow to sacred cows.  

I have never, in trying to form a notice, been so compelled to weigh talent against “production values” (announcing, music, set, costumes and props, direction and pacing, etc) First, to talent. On balance overall, I’d place it in a respectable  B- range.  Good enough for an average audience, certainly for crowds newer to the circus, and especially the young  too young to have much to compare it with.  .

For my eyes, the most gripping moment came on the rolla-bolla, our maniac for the afternoon stacking seven blocks on a roller and then proceeding to place himself at the top. The crowd went wild.  We agree, crowd.  The performer’s hyper jittery nerves, real or not, intensified audience fears.  

I also liked the breezy, ingratiating fellow who works with an upright ladder, and balances large objects. Maybe on the basic side, but refreshing in its delivery.  It’s an act I would welcome seeing again.

Circus Vargas, which has long excluded animals, now seems to be moving out of the aerial sphere as well.  There is virtually little of memorable consequence in the air (only two strap acts, one in each half, well rendered), and practically no clowns.  Yes, there are two guys who make funny faces and funny sounds.  

 Safety first in the modern tent

On the ground, there’s an ambitious teeterboard troupe, a bit of a work in progress.Biggest item is a  woman in harness who is catapulted to form only a three-high. Usually, it’s a four stack that gets wired.  But now, the lifelines, it seems, are becoming more and more an accepted element in the “new circus.” In fact, our protected diva advances the acceptance of them by being lowered to the ground twice with the aid of her safety wire, thus giving it the respect of a co-participant.  She did execute a nifty feat, landing between two under-standers in a splits position.  

What else?  A young juggler offered a wide variety of manipulations, if only so many of them had not turned messy.     

There is plenty of dancing, purpose being, I took it, to flesh out a flimsy theme about the show going to Paris. An accordion player serenades us, and the cast whoops  it up line kicking in a winning can-can.

Second half packs a little more power, what with the standard double wheel and then the cage of three spinning motorcycles.  A more exciting turn had the bikers out of the cage and rip-rolling up and over a ramp to the other side.

Okay, ready or not, here I go.  Production values: They should enhance and elevate the action.  Here they nearly smother it.  This show looked and sounded very different from those I have seen several seasons before, and so I  wondered if there had been a regime change at the top.  Turns out, no, Katya Arata Quiroga and Nelson Quiroga,still own it.  How strange that they, in their heyday top-flight trapeze artists, should now give us a largely empty shell above.

But like it or not, there is a regime change of sorts, an overbearing regime named Jonathan Lee Iverson.  You will know him as a Ringling ringmaster. Here he also serves as performance director.  At the start of his career on the Ringling show, Iverson cut an appealing figure, and I saw great promise and gave him high marks.  But then he was restrained. Repeat: Restrained. Over the years, he has only grown more annoying, especially inside a small tent compared the huge arenas he played.  During set up for the motorcycle cage, I wondered whether a long buzzing noise I heard was part of the operation — or Iverson himself going for a new record in vowel extension.    

This advanced version of  Iverson conveys a belligerent undertone of egocentric control.  Indeed, he has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the tent with his proloooooooooooooooooooonged introductions, which he can't seem to get enough of.   To be fair, the man’s verbal blasts are not without precedent, however questionable.  I can think of at least another blowhard —  the abundantly large one who bellowed away for Carson & Barnes, as if believing that the louder and longer he screamed, the greater would be his  impact. Iverson did excel surprisingly and  magnificently in going operatic in a baritone outburst — a second career in the making?  Or mere lip syncing?

Enough. As for the vaguely dreary recorded music, how best to describe it? In a word, MO-NOT-O- NOUS  Together, ringmaster and score form an oppressive barrier  between  artist and audience.

But ... the crowds the day I attended – I’d guess they filled about half the seats —  were wildly alive, and lapped up most of everything.  Circus Vargas has had 15 shows to do in the small upscale town of Corte Madera, in rich Marin County.  They must be doing something right -- although, and I could be wrong, there seemed to be noticeably fewer people in the seats after intermission.
I know I won’t be returning until there is yet another regime change.   

 Early exit?

 END RINGERS Trooping in Turmoil?  Website does not name the photos.  A total of 3 ringmasters appear in two images, one seen above  Did I miss him? I only saw Iverson in the show.   There's a foot juggling act I would love to have seen  -- woman works large lotus leaf objects. She did not appear. What goes over there? ....  Music that Sounds Like Music: There is music out there that can have strong multi-generational appeal, and the '80s stand out. I bring this up because, while on the way, my Lyft driver, a young guy from Brazil who is training to be an airline pilot like his father and uncle,  had some ‘80s sounds coming from out of his system. We had fun talking up the era.  Beware the Vargas Discount Coupon.I came across a large Vargas ad in the East Bay Times, which read: Save 15% on your tickets!  Use code 15AD23"  I tried using it at the ticket window, only to be curtly rebuffed: “We don’t do those here.” Oh, really? How unlike the previous regime ... They are next headed to Petaluma up the road. I wanted to post more photos, but the website disallows saving copies. 

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Sunday Morning from Out of the Past: And You Wonder, What Are They Thinking? ...

Rumblings down at the runs, waiting on a circus train from nowhere... Once upon a season they were all in the barn by now -- red wagons in need of fresh red paint, ring curbs for new stars, jacks and stringers for repair ... Now the elephants wait for cues that may never come ... To be or not to be? To perform or not to perform?

Down at the runs, you wonder what Barbara Byrd is thinking. Strange how it should all come down to this -- from a man to a woman, from William Coup adding rings in 1872 to Barbara Byrd being the last to keep three of them in motion under the same canvas. Is she too thinking a single circle, or does she hear the ghost of her dad Dory telling her to stay the American course? ... Down in Florida, what is on Johnny Pugh’s mind? Time to retire? Or time to go for broke in a daring blaze, to reinvest and bring back the band?

A thousand miles down a spur track to a humble dream, a new circus is being formed in somebody’s ambitious mind, and maybe that circus has a crusty old midway to offer the jaded patron in search of the past ... Strange gaudy banner lines in flagrant violation of PC standards ...

... What might Paul Binder be thinking when he notes how long it’s been since he presented either a pachyderm or a flyer? Big Apple opens in the fall when circuses once closed, and closes come summer ... Once upon a season, the white tops slept during winter, awoke in time for early spring and were out in the sunshine chasing after the money that harvests put into farmer’s pockets....

Down by the old ice house where the train once arrived, you can almost hear the sound of a faint whistle up the rails and remember when they clanged into town under the cover of a damp morning mist. When the world was barely born and then suddenly appeared before your eyes under pennants galloping in the wind. And you wonder what Renee Storey is plotting when she considers how PETA gives her employer, Cole Bros. Circus, more publicity and might not be such a bad thing after all? What Kenneth Feld is thinking when he continues pitching the Big Cage act to customers who who evidently still want their circus on the wild side ...

And out in San Francisco, where patrons prefer Perrier over lemonade, ballet over big top, even the nuovo rich are growing restless for a taste of reality. They are taking in a very different version of Cirque du Soleil at the moment, a version called Kooza, and some of them are realizing what they have been missing for more than a season.

“This production feels like a heart-pumping cocaine binge for thrill addicts,” proclaims Nathaniel Eaton in the ultra-liberal S.F. Weekly, coming honest on how “ho hum” he found the three Cirque shows that came before.

Animals? Weren’t they supposed to all be gone by now, asks the Savvy Insider, elsewhere at work on routing and promotions, taking time out to answer his own question. No, says he, animals acts did not go away as planned. In Europe, they “have instead been reinvented” ... And you think how wonderfully ironic, that those uppity Brit Lords, sure of their agenda, paid for a study to prove that elephants are really mistreated at the circus —- a study they proved the very opposite! And down at the runs waiting for a train to pull in, you wonder what the public is thinking now...

Over road maps and sponsor contracts, watching videos of acrobats and jugglers and plotting another season, you wonder what John Ringling North II is thinking ...Bigger and better —- or the same?

Even more fun to ponder is what S.F. Cow Palace big shots, without a circus for two years, may be thinking? ... And you can almost hear a distant train whistle somewhere out there on real rails or in the back of your mind, racing forward with a world of spangled wonders to capture a waffling public restlessly ready to be thrilled by something either very new or very old ... And optimistically, you enjoy remember being told over and over again that history repeats itself ...

Down at the runs, Byrd and Pugh, Feld and Binder and Ringling North and Judkins, and yes, Laliberte the Great reinventing himself, are watching and waiting, too. Maybe wondering what we are thinking

First posted December 7, 2007.