At the Oriental Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - The Ringling Brothers circus is no more, but a traveling show called “Circus 1903” is giving area fans their circus fix, if only for a week at the Oriental Theatre.
“Circus 1903” sets itself up as a nostalgic return to the golden age of the circus more than a century ago. The costumes replicate the look of 1903 but basically the show consists of about a dozen acts supervised by a ringmaster/master of ceremonies. The show does differ in many sways from the Ringling experience. There are no merchandise hawkers flooding the aisles to parents of souvenir-starved children. There are no clowns, those frantic performers who whack each other with cushions and in general are a waste of time. And there are no animals, unless one counts a puppet giant elephant and its baby, about which more later.
If the sawdust and tinsel atmosphere of the typical tent and arena circus is absent, the production does fit neatly on the stage of the baroque-decorated Oriental Theatre. The production runs a bit under two hours, including a 20-minute intermission, just about the right length for the attention spans of young audiences, especially at evening performances.
The individual acts are premium quality. The ringmaster noted that more than half of the acts had never been to the United States before. They come from eastern and western Europe and Africa and mostly they perform the more standard circus skills, like a high wire act (the Lopez family) from Mexico, a teeterboard team (led by a Belgian) called the Flying Fins, and a German trick cyclist named Florian.
There were three acts that I thought were total mind blowers. Francois Borie, a Frenchman who calls himself the Great Gaston, put on a display of juggling that challenged the optical acuity of the viewer in its speed. Gaston keeps countless bowling pins airborn in complicated patterns, dashing about the stage in an exercise in perpetual motion. Astonishing stuff. Then there are the Rossi Brothers from Spain. They are foot jugglers, which means that one brother lies on his back with his legs vertical to the ground, propelling his sibling to turn somersaults and gyrations at warp speed. Breathtaking.
The biggest wowser of the evening was a petite contortionist from Africa named Senayet Assefa Amare. I am not normally a big fan of contortionists, their skill at turning themselves inside out making me queasy. But Amare accomplishes feats of bodily flexibility that almost look like optical illusions, gracefully tying herself in knots of astonishing complexity.
The production has neatly solved the controversy over the use of animals in a show. “Circus 1903” exhibits two elephants, a large adult (Queenie) and a baby (peanut), built on aluminum frames and animated by handlers within the figures. The result is an irresistible blend of realism, humor, and charm.
The contributions of David Williamson cannot be overestimated. Williamson is the ringmaster who goes under the name of Willy Whipsnade. He is a combination of W. C. Fields and slight of hand magician who works the crowd with a sly sarcasm that enormously improves on the braying hyperbole of the conventional ringmaster. Williamson is especially deft at working with young children. He brings the tots on stage to assist him in some foolery and he is a hoot. The kiddies on opening night were especially responsive, giving Williamson the fodder for some very funny exchanges.
Hopefully, “Circus 1903” isn’t a one and done production. The dissolution of the Ringling Brothers production creates a void in our opportunity to enjoy traditional circus arts (I don’t count the Cirque du Soleil as a venue for traditional circus pleasures, whatever its New Age merits). The exceptional array of talent at the Oriental Theatre verifies that great circus acts are out there, waiting to be seen. They just need to be packaged and delivered to eager audiences. A week in a Loop theater is well and good, but we need quality shows like this to come often and stay longer.
“Circus 1903” runs through March 26 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $16 to $80. Call 800 775 2000 or
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. March 2017
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