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Flash Review 3, 12-4:
The Wonderful Wizards of Oz
Read this Review Upside-Down
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
Imagine you went to a
party where the other guests just happened to be acute circus performers
-- acute because even at a party they couldn't help busting out,
so thoroughly do they have the circus disease. That's what it felt
like Saturday experiencing Circus Oz, and hanging out (so to speak)
with the droll, punchy, saucy, and sexy men and women who comprise
this Australian troupe, in the house at the New Victory through
January 14. I can't bring myself to use an adjective like super-human
to describe them because, even tho they performed the requisite
circus "tricks" they didn't exude any of the aloof "I can do this
and you can't" persona that circus performers often project. As
phenomenal as some of their feats are, the performers are utterly
human in the brio with which they deliver them.
Encapsulating this ability
to appear human while performing super-human feats is Tim Coldwell,
the company's founding and senior circus artist with 22 years service.
If the circus is part illusion, Coldwell fulfills this neatly in
the way he bookends the evening: Before the curtain even rises (theoretically
speaking), dressed in a garish checked yellow sports jacket and
smoothing down the greasy tufts at the sides of his scalp in a vain
effort to cover his pate, Coldwell greets us as we enter the theater.
By the end of the evening, in the program's single most stunning
virtuoso act, he has progressed from the aisles below the stage
to the ceiling above it, where, quite nonchalantly, he walks upside-down
as if he is rightside-up, coming down, so to speak, in his post-show
dressing room as he hums along with Sinatra's crooning of "My Way."
Of course, with Sinatra
on the soundtrack there's only one thing for it to stave off the
post-show melancholy, and Coldwell pours himself an amber drink,
spilling just a little in the process, but managing to drink a lot.
(Remember, when I say pour and drink, that all this he is doing
upside down. And that Coldwell's nonplussed demeanor is as if he
were rightside up. I almost feel I would have to write these letters
upside down to really convey what this looked like!) Then he suddenly
plops his head up into three small cold cream filled jars on "top"
of his make-up table, pops a red thing on his nose, jams his feet
in a box above him, withdrawing them to reveal red shoe extensions,
and look Ma, he's a clown, just in time to sing-along with Frank,
loudly and atonally "What is a clown, what has he got, two big shoes,
that cost a lot."
It's all funny, indeed,
but terrifying too: I kept thinking, How can he keep the blood from
going to his head for so long? In fact, I don't think I've ever
seen someone hang upside-down for such a long time. This was not
a short piece.
Also flying high above
the stage, earlier in the evening, and quite drolly, was bassist
John O'Hagan. This segment started in a dignified enough manner,
with the three musicians -- O'Hagan, musical director Chris Lewis
and a Tasmanian Devil of a violinist, Suzanne Simpson -- entering
in tux and proceeding to play in the restrained fashion of a classical
concert trio. (This in the wake of a techno dance re-mix of "Treaty"
by the Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, which opened the show,
and a Kiss-Spinal Tap segment complete with what Joe-Bob Briggs
might have dubbed, "Superfluous Sammy Hagar.") The only sign of
shenanigans to come is the presence of Coldwell, who races among
the three to turn the pages of their sheet music, especially when
he realizes that when he doesn't turn them fast enough, the musicians
get stuck on the same notes. Then suddenly, before he or we know
what's happening, O'Hagan is hoisted into the air, with bass in
tow -- until, that is, the bass becomes detached and starts to attack,
pursuing O'Hagan around the stratosphere in a hilarious air ballet.
"Wait'll I get you home!!" the musician scolds his instrument, shaking
his fist a la "To the moon, Alice, to the moon!"
The musicians also figure
in a bit that, well, is not going to seem that funny the way I describe
it but was in the way it was delivered - subtle and yet, delivered
with such wit that even the kids in the audience, in fact especially
the kids, didn't miss the humor for all its sophistication. The
three enter with bell-like fezzes on their heads, which they hit
with drumsticks to produce ringing sounds -- until, that is, they
are joined by Toni Smith, smaller in size and handicapped in bell,
too: hers only produces a wooden "clap." Yet they proceed, for what
seems like ten minutes at least, with the sole object of hitting
their bells while maneuvering in very slow, simple choreography.
The closest moment of
out and out dance - at least in terms of, er, grace -- that we saw
was in the rope-dangling and spinning and unspinning of the singularly
named Mozes, particularly ethereally lovely when his rope spun out
of knots, and he rippled out below it, always stopping before he
reached the ground. (Not that Mozes couldn't play the clown, too;
he'd introduced himself to me at the program's beginning -- when
the entire cast rushed frantically from the rear of the auditorium
to the stage as if searching for something in the auditorium --
by rolling through the aisle on roller skates and ending up on my
lap patting my head.)
But perhaps the most
grace was exuded by Anni Davey who, in physical demands and vocal
(she sung a country-music style "When Good Circus Partnerships Go
Bad" circus paean including the lyrics "You broke my heart when
you broke my legs," while Coldwell scaled an increasingly taller
tower of chairs, stopping only to play a trumpet to accompany her),
was invariably given awkward shticks. These are the hardest stunts
to execute with grace, I think -- at which to maintain one's dignity
while performing essentially self-deprecating and even self-humiliating
stunts -- and yet Davey managed to more than muddle through. She
gave the evening a graceful through-line, finding the beauty in
essentially unbeautiful acts.
This is not to take away
from the rambunctious hard-bodies in the company, but Davey, like
Coldwell, captured that feeling I suggested initially. Were you
to encounter these two at a party, you'd think they were normal
schmucks like you -- perhaps even less coordinated. (Well, since
you reading this are probably a dancer, what I really mean is a
normal schmuck like me!) Until, that is, Davey started climbing
up your wall sideways, and Coldwell drooped drolly from your ceiling.
The way this resonates is that any of us in the audience can fantasize
that if they can do this, so could we -- and thus the circus becomes
not just a show, but a fantastic journey in which, Oz-like, we are
empowered to dream.
In addition to those
already mentioned, our tour guides for Voyage Oz include Sebastian
Dickins, Michael Ling, Sara Ritchie, Kate Fryer, Geoff Dunstan,
and the droll AND deft (even when they're aflame) hula hoop artist
Kareena Oates. Keeping them all bridled, to the extent that is possible
which is barely, is artistic and show director Mike Finch. Keeping
the theater from going up in flames is production manager Kevin
Fregon. And augmenting the ethereal qualities and grand illusions
is lighting designer Gina Gascoigne, who particularly outdid herself
in "Fountains," where the fountains of various mutations are sculpted
and simulated by the performers, who even spout water gracefully.
For more information
on Circus Oz's engagement at the New Victory Theater, please visit
the New Victory's web site.
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