Sunday, November 15, 2009

Performance Report: Cirkus Cirkör & the Delayed Gag

[post 035]

This is a physical comedy blog, not a circus blog, which means my main focus is on how physical comedy works rather than on reviewing circuses. However, before I get to my little piece on the delayed gag, a few words on Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör, where I saw this really nice delayed gag and so much more Saturday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I loved this show. No, it wasn't perfect, and yes it's quite sentimental — two "civilians" get drafted into the world of the circus and discover it's all about heart — but for me it was that rare instance of circus and theatre actually working together. I'm glad not to have read the negative NY Times review until the next day. To tell you the truth, it was odd seeing the Times being critical of a circus at all, since in the past most if not all of their circus reviews have been fluff pieces. ("Golly gee, the circus is in town and ain't that just terrific.")

Cirkör had the bad luck to be picked on by a critic, Jason Zinoman, out to prove them just a pale imitation of Cirque du Soleil. Zinoman's argument is that Cirkör's technical expertise is no match for that of their more famous counterparts: "Cirque serves up this kind of thing as an appetizer, not the main course." Zinoman's own expertise would carry more weight if — here's an idea! — he knew what he was talking about. Take his last paragraph, the only nice thing he had to say about the show: "The one true heart-pounding moment is when a woman climbs a rope in a few bounds and then, from the height of the stage, drops, plummeting almost to her death at an incomprehensible speed. No matter how many times you’ve seen that performed, your jaw still drops."

The only problem is that it wasn't a rope, but a rigid pole, a traditional Chinese pole act. And no, it wasn't some 10-second stunt that went by so fast that such a mistake would be understandable, but a complete act, some 5 to 7 minutes long! Hovey Burgess, who was in the audience that night and in fact for four out of the five performances, commented that it was "the only time I have ever seen this genre performed solo by a woman." He also points out that Zinoman refers to juggling clubs as juggling pins.

And while it's true that the typical Soleil show may have more in the way of technically advanced acts (though not by much), I often find the theatre half of a Soleil show to be very "theatrical" without necessarily being good theatre; glitzy but jejune. With Cirkör, the character interactions and storyline actually made sense. Imagine that!

Here are just a few of the things I liked about Cirkör:
• The troupe is small — eight circus performers and five musicians — and their roles in the production are very clear.
• Most or all of them have been working together for a decade, and it shows in the seamless flow of everything they do. Mirja Tuulikki Jauhiainen and Sanna Kopra perform a really nice stationary trapeze act with transitions that are as smooth as silk, not surprising since they've been working together since 1998.
• Although there are in fact individual acts from time to time, much of what happens is just part of this general flow and is not constrained by traditional variety structure.
• Their use of stage magic and of rear-screen video projection actually worked well with the overall mise-en-scène.
• The band, Irya’s Playground, which the Times only mentions in passing, was not only excellent, but tightly integrated into the performance. You know how the typical juggling act is performed to set music with a few dramatic drum rolls thrown in right before the big tricks? Here there was some terrific interaction between juggler Jay Gilligan (incredible, though from Ohio, not Sweden) and percussionist Erik Nilsson, whose drumming, human sound effects, and scat singing played off of every juggling move to great effect.
• They performed an act walking on bottles that I had never seen live and had only read about being done by the French grotesque Jean-Baptiste Auriol (1806–1881): "He could run along the tops of a row of bottles without knocking them over and then balance in a free headstand atop the last bottle while playing the trumpet." In Cirkör, the performer walks across the tops of a row of bottles on a table. The walk is slow and measured, as the shifts in weight have to be precise to avoid upsetting the bottles, which makes each step more precarious and dramatic than those taken on a tightwire. I'm a bit skeptical of the description of Auriol — c'mon, did he really run across them and do a headstand on one, and were they really free-standing bottles?? — even if that description does come from my book Clowns (p.164). Another nice thing about the Cirkör version was that the table was already there, had been used for other purposes, and the bottles were placed down in order by the "diners" as the equilibrist approached.

All that being said, it's perfectly fine for someone not to have liked this show. I'm not at all opposed to the idea of serious circus criticism, but I think the "paper of record" might want to apply the same standards to all circuses, and find a writer with real expertise in the area. As my friend Dave Carlyon pointed out, if you're going to write about opera, it's not enough just to know about the performing arts, you actually have to know about music. Likewise... well, you get the point.

Hmm... maybe the Times should hire Hovey as their circus reviewer.

Final salvo: I've been to shows where I was not impressed yet the audience gave them standing ovations, so it's all a matter of opinion, but I still can't resist mentioning that the sold-out crowd at BAM Saturday night gave Cirkör a prolonged, rousing, (mostly) standing ovation.

End of Rant. Here's Cirkör's promo video, which gives you a taste of it all, though without capturing any of the beautiful moments that make it such a strong performance.

Hey, that was more than a few words... no more delays getting to that delayed gag!

For starters, here's what I wrote about the delayed gag in my Yale Theater essay on physical comedy:

Surprise being essential to comedy, the smart performer may play with the cadence of the 1-2-3 gag by initiating the third part either sooner or later than the gag's rhythm would lead us to expect. Most common is the delayed gag. Especially useful in a play or a longer performance piece, it allows a lapse of time between parts two and three. In the interim, the main action of the piece continues. Just when the audience has begun to forget about the gag, the payoff comes, often with doubled effect.

The legendary Swiss clown, Grock, was famous for a heartwarming delayed gag involving his violin bow. After finishing a short flourish on the violin, he tacks on a slight embellishment, flipping the bow up into the air and attempting to catch it back in his hand — unsuccessfully. Embarrassed, he hides himself behind a screen and practices his bow juggling. We see the bow soar repeatedly above the top of the screen. It is clear he has mastered the technique. But back in front of the audience, he again fails. He holds a second rehearsal behind the screen, but when he returns he is beset by new mishaps and soon forgets about the bow.

It is several minutes and one violin later (the first one having been pulverized beneath a Grock pratfall) and he is finally finishing off his tune on the violin. Now comes the payoff. Without thinking about it, he casually tosses the bow up into the air and catches it. Realizing what has happened, he is eager to duplicate his success. He starts to toss the bow up again, but before he can release it he assesses the probable risk, thinks better of it, and decides to leave well enough alone.

By accomplishing without thinking what had been impossible when he tried so hard, Grock creates a splendid clown moment. The delay has heightened the comedic impact, at the same time enriching Grock's characterization.

Got it? So here's the one I loved in Cirkör. It's a bit involved, but I hope worth following. At the very beginning of the show, an audience member is drafted to come onstage and ride a stationary bicycle, which is rigged to generate electricity to power the main spotlight. (Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! He's actually an audience plant, though not an obvious one.) If he doesn't pedal, the stage goes dark. He resumes pedaling, the spot comes on (and they sneak on some other lights as well, but you get the joke.) There's a bunch of business with this, but after a while you forget about it and tune in to the rest of the show. At a certain point you might notice that he's stopped pedaling but the lights are still on, though presumably he's generated enough power to last awhile. Meanwhile, you're captivated by the whitefaced performer who's attempting to balance in a handstand high atop a tall stack of chairs. I'm guessing we were now 20-30 minutes into the show. Just as he goes into his riskiest trick, far above the stage, the lights go out! There is a panicked shout and the cyclist has to pedal furiously to restore the lights as our acrobat barely manages to regain his bearings.

It deservedly got a big laugh, all the stronger because we knew we had been tricked into forgetting about it.

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