A quest is defined by Webster’s dictionary as ‘a search, pursuit, investigation or inquest.’ But it’s also described as ‘a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance, usually involving an adventurous journey’. Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, the creator and director of Quest (a new circus-theater production at the Actors Gymnasium) made a point to work both of those definitions in as she explored the concept of The Three Questions, a short allegorical tale by Leo Tolstoy.
What emerges is a philosophical circus adventure that runs every weekend from February 11th until March 19th. Starting in a prep school game show setting, four ambitious, academic youths attempt to answer daunting Jeopardy level questions until our protagonist throws everyone off by asking Tolstoy’s three questions. A story opens up within a story, and we meet Tolstoy’s king, who wants to know the answers to the same questions. The king’s quest takes him (and the protagonist and crew) thru some challenging terrain, most notably the ocean and the subway—all accomplished by high level clowning and acro. Eventually, it leads him to the hermit, who technically should have all of the answers, but who seems very absorbed in the thankless labor of climbing a pole and dropping a penny over and over again.
Before we even meet the hermit though, we meet the Actors Gymnasium’s versatile teen ensemble as they create the many characters and obstacles the protagonist, her classmates and the king must experience to find the answers they seek.
Of course, the quest is based loosely on The Three Questions, so loosely that some of its power is lost in translation when an important plot twist is glossed over. But never mind that, the message is strong and clear, and the mix of professional performers with the teen ensemble creates an interesting blend of ability levels and creative collaboration. At times, the 21-person cast seems head-spinningly full of characters, but how else would they work in a drum corps routine, a jump rope act that verges on making fractals, a guitar and violin power anthem (sung by perky narrator/headmistress Flora Bare) to heroines and a group sing along? Add to that an adventurous group act blending straps, silks and rope featuring Edgar Ortiz and a well-choreographed group juggling routine. Still, the best moments of the show are the occasions when you seem to forget that you are watching a circus and simply see the stunts as moments in time of conquering an obstacle. As when the king climbs up and down the pole repeatedly to drop that penny for the hermit, or when his travel companions cleverly create doors and fences with a rope.
The king, played by Amanda Crockett, is especially charming, capturing the enthusiasm of a perplexed youth on an adventure. She manages an amusing rant during an especially humorous hat juggling routine and later deflects the many responses to her questions from her subjects while spinning out of control on the trapeze. There are great moments of humor throughout the show, such as during one scene when the king asks “Who is the right person to listen to?” The first person claims Obama. The second person says “Michelle Obama” The third person says “Malia Obama” and the fourth says “Any Obama!”
One conundrum of the circus/theater synthesis in general is the question of how much talking can/should be done by the performers while interacting with their apparatus. Too much talking can seem as unnatural as no talking. At times, the amount of dialog going on was distracting from the artistry, but on other occasions, like the energetic duo trapeze act between Kate Braland and David Corlew, the back and forth was interesting and paralleled their actions—verbally highlighting their struggles.
There is a lot going on in this show, but what is happening is ambitious, adventurous, inventive and full of amazing flipping, climbing, swinging and tossing from a teen ensemble that brings its A game to every performance and an adult cast that is committed to completing their quest with panache.