Bread and Circuses

Seeing a strongman or a hunchbacked clown takes a lot of dough

The circus has arrived from Montreal, and brought with it prices from Broadway. I speak, of course, of Alegría, the latest of Cirque du Soleil's touring shows to set up a tent outside downtown Minneapolis, although readers could be forgiven if they thought I was talking of some other circus. This is, after all, a summer of ballyhoo. Indeed, just as Alegría opened its tent flaps along the Mississippi, just a scant half-dozen blocks away 3 Legged Race was hosting its annual circus-arts-fueled Summer Blizzard. In the meanwhile, in Highland Park, St. Paul's own Circus Juventas had just closed up shop on a show dedicated to trapeze innovator Jules Léotard. The Bedlam Theater and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater both will be following circus themes in September. If this keeps up, we might as well just cover the streets of Minneapolis with sawdust and serve carnival peanuts on every street corner.

Alegría is an agreeable spectacle, and it might be the most old-fangled circus to play the Twin Cities. They have a strongman routine that might have played to Barnum: A leather-clad gent named Ginaud Dupuis bends rebar around his neck and unbends horseshoes on his thigh, before huffing and puffing and hoisting dozens of Cirque du Soleil performers on his back. In a similar spirit, the show opens with a lovely trapeze act by Gaston Elie and Tuuli Paulina Räsänen, who dangle precariously above the audiences, seem to tumble, and then catch themselves at the last moment. This routine inspires audible gasps--exactly the sorts of noises one should hear at the circus.

But they play on a crowded stage. By my count, this circus has eight performers filling the role of ringmaster, not counting the show's two singers, one dressed in black, the other in white, who serenade each act with what sounds like a hybrid of German lieder and French cabaret songs. Throughout the evening, a dwarfish, hunchbacked clown (Ebon Grayman) prowls the stage, while three performers referred to as "Old Birds" prance around him, twitching like ravens, and around them several nymphs dance in circles. They are occasionally interrupted by a roly-poly fellow in white face paint (Tamir, according to the program), accompanied by a smaller version of himself (a nearly identically clad child referred to as Little Tamir), who come out onstage, doff their derbies, and introduce the next performance. It's as though the Cirque du Soleil was embarrassed to offer such a classic circus, and so attempted to make up for it with a surfeit of velvet-costumed, painted, orchidaceous nonsense. I suspect this particular circus could lop $10 off its ample ticket prices (they average half a c-note) by being a little less generous with the fruitiness. Hell, just by scraping the greasepaint off a few performers, I bet they could halve their budget. It costs a pretty penny to be this arty.

By comparison, at $12 to $16 per ticket, the Summer Blizzard 2002 (which closed last weekend) was quite a bargain--all the pretension of Cirque du Soleil, but at a much better price! And 3 Legged Race-founder David Moore Jr.'s pretensions are worthy ones: He really enjoys mixing different mediums and seeing what emerges. And so we had four dancers tearing at each other's costumes, which were well-styled, flapperish, and made of papier-mâché. We had jugglers, slack-wire walkers, and aerialists, working through little routines devised by such local favorites as playwright Lisa D'Amour and choreographer Penelope Freeh. Best of all, we had only one ringmaster, played by Sarah Agnew with some superlative bits of stage comedy, which included folding herself into and out of a suitcase. So much is being paid for pomposity and grandiosity, when, on the cheap, a few blocks away, Agnew was quietly transforming herself into a world-class clown.

 
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