by Teresa Jusino
OK, literature and politics geeks! Raise your hand if you’ve read George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Now, imagine that instead of a farm, it was set in the company of a traveling circus. Imagine that instead of animals getting rid of humans, a group of performers got rid of their ringmaster. Imagine that instead of pigs abusing their power in the barnyard, money-hungry performers sold out their vision of a “circus without a ringmaster” for a quick payday by doing a television commercial. The House of Yes theater company in Brooklyn, NY provides an intriguing adaptation of the Orwell classic in Circus of Circus written by Kae Burke and directed by Rachel Klein.
More than a play, Circus of Circus is actually a full-on circus performance, its cast consisting of trapeze artists, fire-twirlers, acrobats, contortionists, and aerialists all doing amazingly dangerous and wonderful things on a small stage without a net. There is also music, with a wonderful jazz ensemble led by Benjamin Ickies, as well as vocalists among the cast. It isn’t a musical exactly, but as the anti-totalitarian allegory unfolds, we watch the traveling circus performers’ show – called Circus of Circus to symbolize how “Zara’s Circus” no longer belongs to any one person – and there are musical numbers featuring dance in addition to the feats of daring.
The idea to adapt Animal Farm this way is an inspired choice, and Burke has done a solid job with the script in order to make it work. There is no question that the cast is talented as far as their circus abilities go. Shannon Turner as Old Marjorie, a former circus performer who comes back to inspire revolution, has an amazing voice, and though her time on stage is brief, she steals the show. Kudos, too, should go to Evgenia Radilova, an audience favorite both for her comedic performance as well as her fire-twirling skill; and Ethan O’Hara as the charming and funny Narrator/Stage Hand.
However, this production, while enjoyable, was uneven. While most of the performers were brillant when doing tricks or dancing, the acting left much to be desired. Most of the performances were too over-the-top to relate to or identify with, and in a production with this much spectacle, it’s important to give the audience something to ground us, and none of the acting performances did that.
Another distraction was the decision to include familiar standards like “Mein Herr” or “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” but change the lyrics to fit the narrative. I can appreciate the desire to include standards in a show like this, and those songs would fit as numbers for this particular troupe of performers to do. However, changing the lyrics, rather than pull me into the world as I think was the desired intention, pulled me out, because in the end all it did was make me miss the original songs. I would love to see how this piece would function as an original musical, with completely new music specifically designed to tell the story of these characters, with songs used both within and outside of the context of the circus.
Director Rachel Klein is great at giving an audience wonderful things to look at on stage. Her costume choices are impeccable, and her desire to put things like b-movies, or steampunk, or in this case, old-timey circus motifs on stage often leads to amazing visuals. Where I think she could stand to improve now that she has myriad shows of this type under her belt, is in the area of drama. I would love to see her marry her visuals and choreography to stronger character work and tighter pacing of story. Stylized though her productions might be, and though she describes what she does on her blog as “choreographic theater,” there’s no reason why they can’t also aspire to some kind of emotional truth. The thing is, if she did that, she would be unstoppable.
Still, Circus of Circus is a fun night out if for no other reason than it will make you want to run out and take fire-twirling lessons or go to trapeze school.
Circus of Circus is in its final week of performances: THURSDAY-SATURDAY at The House of Yes in Brooklyn, NY (342 Maujer Street). Tickets are $20-30, and include a complimentary whiskey drink. For tickets, visit the website.
Photos courtesy of Rachel Klein Productions.
Correction: Costume design for Circus of Circus was done by Kate Burke. Set designs are by Pak-Kei Mak.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, Tor.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com,. She is currently working on several fiction projects, including a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which she hopes to debut at the beginning of 2011! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.