No Top Hat, No Tailcoat, No Tigers

As long as I can remember, I have loved circuses. I was sad to see Ringling Brothers fold but on balance it needed to happen. If the organization couldn’t find a way to preserve the dignity and safety of the animal performers while providing a compelling show, then an ending as sad as Emmett Kelly’s trademark visage was indeed necessary. Even so, this column is not about endings. It is about happy memories and current reasons for the show to go on.

This past weekend I attended a rather odd little circus (actually it was a smaller version of an odd larger circus). Billed as the Paranormal Cirque, this Italian import had a lot of innovative production value. Start with the big black tents, glaring red lights and all show employees in some kind of ghoulish makeup. Everything had a morbid tinge to it. This ain’t a show for the kiddies.

Upon entering the “lobby” area you are greeted by characters who are variously silent in a disturbed way and ferociously loud in an equally off-putting way. One performer, a muscular young black man sported white tribally-inspired make up. The word “voodoo” comes to mind. He yelled at people to get seated and herded them with a roaring chainsaw. Of course, there was no chain but when he gunned it and grazed the unsuspecting, his victims hopped and squealed trying to escape.

Once taken to your seat by another gruff attendant you start to get a better sense of how things might unfold. As you sit anxiously munching your popcorn a strange hand slides into your paper bucket, helping itself to the contents. You turn to find who might be at the other end. It’s a lithe specter, her long dark hair hanging a foot over her shoulders. She stands stretched across three seats like a spider on its web. She gobbles up her catch and moves along to her next victim.

At this moment you realize you’ve entered an uneasily twined burlesque and macabre atmosphere that you’ll spend the night reconciling – but your brain isn’t afforded the luxury of working through all that before its forced to confront more pressing matters. 

This time, it’s a clown, a very scary clown (yeah, I know… some of you think all clowns are scary… “coulrophobia” as the neologism goes). So, there he is, a ghastly razor-toothed smile atop a gentleman of extremely small stature. Blood stains his shirt like three big buttons. He variously greets people with insults, revoked handshakes and the occasional humped leg. You laugh while drawing your own knees closer together. 

As you sit anxiously munching your popcorn a strange hand slides into your paper bucket, helping itself to the contents...

I’m a tad entranced. I happen to like clowns. I used to dream of being one. There’s just something about the mask and the attendant freedom it grants the wearer. I am a competent juggler and once upon a time could ride a unicycle and make a few balloon animals. I fear what form they’d take if this guy made them.

The clowning in this circus is no mere slapstick or vulgar lampoon. It works on many levels. While I am not wholly committed to this interpretation, there was an interminably long audience participation segment that I believe to be a riff on the final scene of Pagliacci. Whatever the inspiration, by the time it was over, I was ready for Canio’s dagger. 

There were other very traditional features that one might encounter in just “normal” circuses. The opening act was performed by six very muscular young men whose deft flights and swings on the horizontal bar looked more Olympian than vaudevillian. Your mind wonders how human beings could possibly do what you’re seeing. 

There was a plate spinning act. As a juggler, I liked this even if it is a bit staid. This fellow lost one in the middle but given the number he had going, you forgive the minor lapse. 

An extremely skilled performer worked a Giant Hoop (or Roue Cyr) in a way I’ve never seen. It’s a skill that requires a tolerance of dizziness one might find in astronauts along with incredible balance. In the video you’ll see an unrelated performer, Rachel Salzman of New York work the wheel in a way on par with (or better than) the “paranormal” artist.

There was an aerial silk routine that also ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. It must feel like flying. In general, I tend to be underwhelmed by this act. It just rings a little hokey to me but the mastery on display here caused me to rethink my opinion. 

As a finale, a succession of large magical illusions and a dance number provided an unanticipated departure from more standard circus fare. 

Overall, the Paranormal Cirque was an evening well spent – provided that sort of show is something you want to experience. Were I to nitpick, I conclude this: It tries to be too many things while lacking a cohesive narrative theme. All of the performers were highly skilled and entertaining but the connection to anything “paranormal” was tangential at best. That said, I’d really like to see the full-blown version that visits larger towns. I am thankful the troupe decided to give Pine Bluff something outside its comfort zone. We need a lot more of that.

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