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Flash Review, 10-12: Balancing acts
From stupid to sublime with Circus Oz

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

BERKELEY -- Seen Sunday at Zellerbach Hall in the last performance of its current touring untitled show, Circuz Oz delivered a spectacle that veered wildly from the embarassing (white lady rap rifs that were old 20 years ago) to the refreshing (a take-off on the nouveau cirque trapeze duet which splits the man's pants asunder and busts the routine's conventions wide open).

Perhaps I'm too jaded, but the basic tumbling, juggling, and shoulder-balancing feats which constituted the bulk of the first act were nothing to move you to the edge of your seat, and the humor delivered by MC Sarah Ward veered from simply unoriginal to wince-producing (the rap riff). An exception was a balancing act in which the performer (unspecified in the program) maintained an escalating number of cigar boxes between two hands, then neatly disassembled them by flipping them one by one to a colleague who tossed them in a cart, maintaining the dwindling number of boxes between his hands until they were all gone.

A second-act trapeze duet succeeded not only because it mocked the conventions of this act, but because the twists were subtle: The man lowering the trapeze towards the ground and the bar stopping... just a bit too high for the woman to reach with her upstretched hands, her splayed fingers continuing to grasp at it as she stood on her tippy-toes; the tear in his pants being not outlandishly large, but just a sliver -- which, in reality, is all it would take to be embarassed; the woman not simply accidentally kicking his crotch once they're aloft on the trapeze and hanging together on and around the bar, but somehow getting her foot caught inside his pants through the torn seam, and us taking a moment to realize that this is why they're stuck and can't untangle. What also made this segment work is that it's where MC Sarah Ward really shows her singing chops, leaving the bad rap attempt behind for a wholloping imitation of Mariah Carey singing about flying, a power-house over-the-top ballad which contrasts nicely with the repeated mishaps going on around the trapeze. Ward's so good that I had trouble figuring out if she was singing live or if we were listening to a recording of Carey herself.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Oz is the live music, played by a power-house band lead by Carl Polke. Also sublime in an elegantly simple routine towards the beginning of the second act was Ania Reynolds playing bell-like sounds on a sort of baby Wurlitzer mounted on a bicycle which she rode around a juggling Rowan Heydon-White.

Another act also works because it bucks expectations. When a man in a wheelchair appears, one braces for bad visual puns about the disabled. In fact, the chair is really just a scenic element and prop tool. A magician tells the man he can send him on vacation wherever he wants; the man asks for a place where he'll be surrounded by palm trees and, a puff of smoke later, finds himself on top of one, perched on a bushel of golden tinsel leaves and balancing on an unstable trunk high above stage left. Of course he has to get up on the wheelchair and balance on just his hands, and does it with aplomb and narry a quiver.

Less successful was an amorphous disco roller-skating rink spoof, set incongruously to a thinly veiled version of the pre-disco "Theme from Shaft," lead by a sort of pimp MC in fake long hair and mustache, the performers clad in garb that even the Village People would have rejected.

That it seemed to lift from Pilobolus's "Tall Women" duet didn't stop me from enjoying the grande finale, in which large woman MC Ward's gauzy white dress balloons out and up into over-sized tent proportions, she rising along with it, singing an anthem that includes the lyric, "It ain't over until the fat lady sings."

But what saved this show for me was the classy curtain call, which didn't end with the bows, but with the performers marching and musically playing their way out though the auditorium, exiting in effect with the audience, and inviting them to dance in the lobby. It was a real gesture of embracing the audience that others would do well to emulate.

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