We live in an age of accomplishment, of bigger, better, and the only. Circus and humor are hardly immune to this credo of the modern age. Enter Circus Oz. What this reviewer thought was an allusion to the L. Frank Baum novel is, in actuality, a clever twist on the land from which the troupe is based, Australia. Oz stands for “Aussie,” which here becomes their own mystical land.
As the audience entered the McCarter Theatre on the gorgeous Princeton University campus on a breezy Saturday afternoon, a dome of white parachute material stood alone on stage greeting all, as mysterious and stagnant as the obelisque in Kubrick’s 2001.
A few of the performers met the ticket-holders on their way into the theatre, and eventually a brass band struck up a rousing tune while the crowds smiled.
The lights dimmed, techs scampered into the inky darkness, ascending ladders on stage right and left like stealthy ninjas, and the dome lifted to reveal a compeer with an operatic range, smartly dressed in Steampunk, this side of Gangs of New York.
When you attend any circus, the recap is almost always full of “oh, remember when they jumped through…” and other details of the fantastic delight that is circus. In Circus Oz’s case, what is remembered more than any singular cabalistic acrobatic turn is the attitude with which the skills are displayed.
During a two-person trapeze act on one bar, the male performer is strongly jettisoned so that the cross bar lands firmly, and unmistakably, between his legs—which leads every male member of the audience to fret that happening to themselves. The often-smart mouthed zoftick emcee purrs, “You don’t see that in Cirque du Soliel.”
Tumblers tumble, singers sing, and the rola-bola daredevil went the stunt one better, drawing a rousing cheer for clever innovation. Madcap invention is the rudder to the Oz ship and they steer their circus into directions that conjure up the natural reminiscence of cinema: Mad Max, and a touch of Fritz Lang. What we see on stage, one set piece — reminding one of the Oklahoma oil dirges — and in the audience, and hear from the swinging brass band led by a drummer with deft chops, is really only second to what we imagine. This is pointed out to us by the conspirators of this wacky wonderground of high flying, nattily-dressed and randy, jaunty attitude.
Circus Oz is a delight. One circus/theatre insider mentioned to me before entering, that the second act of this 2 hour show was what he came for. Opening this second act, the entire troupe seemed to form a cyclone of activity surrounding a simple dinner table. Over 100 years ago, the Hanlon Bros. did something similar in their historic act, Voyage en Suisse. However, as clever as the Oz troupe is with their impossible gyrations and clever spoken humor, only one large stage illusion is left over from the Hanlon’s.
Other magic is made fun of with gentle spirit, and competitions between performers have the audience rooting for both, especially in the case of the giant pole sitter who nearly comes crashing to Earth in a hilarious escapade, almost too big for this environ.
A set of candelabras become the hand props for a six-person juggling routine, a roller blade act is largely kept chained in mild gags and tumbles until the final astonishing conclusion; and no animals are endangered in this show because there aren’t any save the delightfully kooky and resilient performers, who sometimes dress as red kangaroos.
The final affect is one of magic. You leave the theatre believing, rightly in this reviewer’s opinion, that this crowd from Down Under can do anything. Whether it is ride a bicycle that is constantly being reconfigured in transit, juggle a myriad of chapeaus among two gents, or just happen to be in the right place to have an ostrich feather magically descend from the heaven’s to land on the forehead of a clever clown.
Using a rather broad definition of clown, each performer is indeed clownish. Most talk, and all relate to one another, making this consortium of hilarity tighter, more relaxed and genuinely giving to the audience than many in the variety arts. How many times have we seen the diva take a sweeping bow for perhaps a stunt that was slightly mundane? Not so here.
Circus Oz is in fact a troupe of seemingly selfless performers who jump, dazzle and give; and keep on giving. As the audience leaves the theatre, the songstress wails mightily that she will keep singing until all have left…but the surprise was on the smiling ticket-buyers…the troupe was in the theatre lobby to sign programs, and play the occasional large brass instrument.
If you are in the mood for your standard, 4th wall-observing baggy pants impersonal grand show of 1001 wonders, Circus Oz is not your show. If however, you want to return to the precious childhood state of pure wonder, and gaze upon finely trained and conditioned champions of independent spirit who will make you laugh, shiver, and erupt in glee…see Circus Oz.
Click here for more information on Ben Robinson and to read his previous guest posts.
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