Vladimir Ilyich Lenin once said that circus was the people’s art, and by that he probably meant that people really need some slapstick and shocking good fun to take their minds off the shit show that was their lives. The same holds true today, and though we have invented myriad ways to distract people (Catfish, Instagram, Minecraft, improv comedy) there is really nothing quite as pure as the laughter that follows the hilarity of clowns or the gasps of a crowd shocked by the derring-do of an acrobat. Cirque Italia has a real handle on that classic approach, and they provide the circus artists to wow the crowds, but they are not beyond stepping out of a timeless tradition to keep the people roaring and clapping in the name of showbiz.
The clowns got the crowd revved up, and Alex the clown did a hilarious comic trampoline act. There were twin jugglers—an elegant contortionist, a graceful silks artist, the best hand balancing father-son duo imaginable, and even a daring high wire act on the shortest high wire I’ve ever seen. But then the tent was not so huge, even the back row had a decent view, which made for a more intimate experience for everyone in the crowd, especially when the dinosaur came out to chase the clown. And although this circus was going for a conventional Italian feel, inspired by the owner and founder Manuel Rebecchi’s history (his great aunt Moira Orfei was considered queen of the Italian circus), there were quite a few interesting departures from tradition during the show.
For instance, the pretty mermaid that all of the little girls were clamoring to take pictures with during intermission sloughed off her fish tail and coiled herself mightily up in to the air on straps—a discipline that historically attracts more men than women. Then there were the lasers—suddenly a mime-like person covered in lights, as if he just walked off the set of Tron, entered the stage and started whipping around laser guns and swords before he stood on a platform and began to play with a laser beam, contorting it in many mind-boggling ways to the music. It was absolutely hypnotic. Then a princess-like lady appeared to make giant bubbles and eventually encase volunteer kids in them.
There was an odd tempo to the show, sometimes it was upbeat and fun aiming to amuse in a childlike way, and then sometimes there were two or three slow and sophisticated acts in a row. Add to that the water feature, a 35,000 gallon water tank stage that was raised and lowered (depending on the act) and things somehow seemed surreal. It was beautiful to see a man in a tuxedo doing a chair climbing act while surrounded by a fountain of water, but it did seem a bit unnecessary. Worse yet, it gave the scene that same comforting blue glow one gets hypnotized by from the TV screen. The ultimate sensation was one of being slightly removed from the action, instead of immersed in it, yet immersed is what the intimate setting and interactive clowns demanded. Also missing from the show was the ringmaster, a person who could have tied the energy and acts together with a little charm and spit. There were several clowns who seemed to be vying for that position, but they all tended to play to the front of the tent, not to the whole 360 degree crowd, which was a shame because reaching all the people is what circus is all about (even before Lenin said so). Another missing element were the animals, and I leave it to each reader to decide whether that is a plus or a minus, but from my perspective, the experience was just as full and exotic (thanks to the mermaid and the dinosaur, no doubt).
For the final bow, each performer came out wearing a beautiful silk sash that told us which country they were from and there were at least 10 countries represented in the mix. As tent circuses persists in touring around the US, people recall what it is like to step over mud puddles on the way to fun and to appreciate the fleeting glamour of traveling shows. Cirque Italia is walking that precarious tight rope between old and new, allowing modern songs and things like lasers to mingle with the sawdust and glitter. If that’s what it takes to keep the crowds streaming in, then so be it.
Cirque Italia has multiple shows a day June 16-19 under its white-and-blue tent at 3150 S. Cicero Ave. Tickets range in price from $10 to $50. We suggest you get there good and early to pick up tickets from will call to avoid long lines.