I'm a circus fan. I see a lot of shows. So I view them with a certain level of honest critique. I don't just think it is neat to go see a circus. Well, alright, there IS that. If you can't get excited and drawn into wonderment by attending the circus, what CAN you find interesting in life? Still, I want something more. I want a show that speaks to me, offers some artistry, is well produced.
Every circus has its own unique character. So it may be unfair to compare one to another directly. Perhaps the better question is, "Do you do well what you are trying to do?"
This year I have (thus far) seen the following shows: Ringling's 137th Edition Red Unit ("Bellobration!"), Zoppe Family Circus, Cirque Shanghai, Kelley Miller Circus, Carson and Barnes Circus, The Midnight Circus, CircEsteem's Spring student circus, some local small shows with a circus oriented nature (including Ottavio Canestrelli's "A Clown Without a Circus"), and now the Ringling Gold Unit ("An Upside Down World.") The theme of the latter is not heavily emphasized as it was when the unique act of ceiling walkers highlighted the 134th Edition. This act (which I could happily watch many more times) is just one among many on the Gold Unit show. But, perhaps, this is the better brilliance of the production.
It may be something about the intimacy of one ring. (And this Ringling show actually does maintain a ring!) There is a certain immediacy and closeness which draws one into the experience and gathers your attention effectively. But, this alone won't make a show top notch. There needs to be a flow, a drama, a comedy to be a fit. This circus has that in a way that none other I have seen this year provides.
Unlike the other Ringling offerings currently running, the Gold Show (despite its entitlement) does not seek to provide some sort of story line running thread or even an overall thematic context. Rather, the show's characters speak for themselves. Yes, character is the key. From the initial introductions of Ringmaster Jon Weiss to the extended European style clowning entrees of Tom Dougherty (and his traditional American style clowning complement Mitch Freddes); the beauty, grace, and strength of Sylvia Zerbini, the costuming of their teetherboard team, or the "businesslike" attire of contortionists. The real story and connective tissue is, then, in the acts themselves, each speaking something of its own particular nature.
I think my favorite piece was a lovely elephant act. Not the kind of thing one typically thinks of with Ringling. Rather than a large procession of pachyderms, or even a trio tramping around with their tricks, a single bull did the job. It started out with a young girl in pajamas laying on a sofa at the end of track space. Tired, but still awake, she discovers a little stuffed animal elephant inside the ring, perched on a small tub. She enters the ring, retrieves it, and returns to the couch to sleep. Here begins a dream sequence where subtle blue lighting accents an entering elephant at the portal opposite end. Complete with extended tusks, and enveloped in fog, it sports a beautiful woman who then presents the glittered animal through delightful poses and fanciful moves. This tender piece is circus as ART! It is something which relates well to the imaginations of children "of ALL ages", 1 to 100. It is the kind of thoughtful thing which can recapture an audience that has grown apathetic or lost high expectations.
Also of note was a clowning act by Tom Dougherty, based upon his antics in finding a fancy hat to play "Ringmaster", and the cadre of backup singers who appear to announce his placement of the hat. It takes other hilarious twists and turns, including an illustration of what might happen to your cell phone if you let a clown get his hands on it. I am gladdened to see Ringling enabling such serious humor and giving it the time it needs to develop. I don't know whether the act can communicate as well to the larger performance space required of the Blue show, but it certainly would be great to see this survive as Dougherty moves to that unit next season.
Perhaps everything was not ideal on this show. I could certainly find room for improvement in places. And, obviously, a number of the acts (and much of the music) is recycled from former Ringling productions. But this does not in any way stale with this presentation. Instead it received new life! The show, then, has all the excitement which you'd expect from Feld. To boot, this circus runs well and tight. There is an intimate, charming aspect to it. It connects with an audience on numerous levels. And you certainly have FUN!
There still remain some "new cirque" productions which I intend to witness before the year ends. But, as far as something in the more traditional vein goes, this show, now reaching its end run, has been the best of the year I've seen. Indeed, the Gold Unit's "Upside Down World" may not quite be on the same level as Barnum's Kaleidoscape was, but it's quite possibly the next best thing that Ringling has had to offer since.