Thursday, January 20, 2011

PuSh Review #1: Circa at Freddy Wood

Herewith the first in what I hope will be a regular series of promptly posted capsule reviews of the PuSh shows I'm seeing this year.

Last night it was Circa at the Freddy Wood, brought to us by the eponymous troupe from Brisbane, Australia that wowed PuSh audiences two years ago at Performance Works. In his remarks during the curtain speech, the Australian Consul referenced the devastating floods that have ravaged Queensland and directed us to the State's official website ( should we wish to donate to the reconstruction fund.

However, it was anything but a sombre evening. Circa specializes in what is known as the "new circus," and while this means, among other things, dispensing not just with animals, but also the more vaudevillian and side-show aspects of the traditional circus, they are certainly still out to entertain. They do this primarily through amazing feats of physical daring, combining incredible displays of strength, balance, contortion, and dexterity with acrobatics, tumbling, and choreographed dance. To say that some of their moves defy the laws of gravity (and those of physics, more generally) does not nearly go far enough in describing how the three men and two women that are part of this show fling their bodies through space, or balance on each other's shoulders and heads (and just about every other limb imaginable), or dangle from ropes and stand on a trapeze--suffice to say that in the latter case the performer is using neither his hands nor his feet.

This is the sort of show where spontaneous gasps and bursts of applause erupt from the audience throughout the evening, and on their own the various routines might have started to become indistinguishable in their virtuosity were they not also leavened by a playful sense of humour that lets the audience know the performers are not taking themselves too seriously. Much of this humour is gendered in interesting ways, and a mocking of strong-man masculinity earlier in the show that occurs through an interesting contrast of two of the male performers' bodies comes full circle at the end when one of the women emerges from the wings in stilettos and proceeds to walk all over one of these men (to the strains of Leonard Cohen's "Came So Far for Beauty," no less).

Equally compelling is the intimacy and stripped-down quality of Circa's performance aesthetic. This is not Cirque du Soleil, with its own big-top tent, countless performers, over-the-top costumes and make-up, and elaborate narrative conceits. Here we have five performers on a bare stage, with just a few props and compelling sound and lighting design. This allows us to concentrate, in ways that Cirque's theatrical sleights of hand seek to elide, on the extraordinary bodily effort that goes into every aspect of this show. Muscles are rippling before us, steadying steps need to be taken for balance, and sometimes moves aren't always executed according to plan or have to begin again. This doesn't lessen our pleasure in the performance any; indeed, I would say that it heightens it. While the thrill of a show like this is largely vicarious (how do they do that? how can I possibly watch them do that?), it also invites a degree of corporeal identification, at once through a recognition on the part of spectators of what our bodies can't do, and what, in different contexts but arguably with equal amounts of effort and grace, they can.

Circa continues at the Freddy Wood through this Saturday. The troupe will also be performing a family-oriented show, 46 Circus Acts in 45 Minutes, at the same venue this Sunday at 2 pm. As always, purchase your tickets at the PuSh Festival website.


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