Strolling in to the Oriental Theatre on opening night in Chicago one could get the feeling that the golden age of circus never ended and they might be right. The house was packed, and droves of children were prepared to stay up late with their theater-going parents and see what the circus of yore had to offer. Wonderments were delivered, from the life-sized puppet elephants, to the daring stunts of the acrobats and tight rope walkers, the acts just kept getting more polished and spectacular.
What gave Circus 1903 its sense of place and time was the elaborate and picturesque set, which romanticized everything, including the act of putting up a tent with a dramatic all hands-on deck tent-rigging scene. There was even a circus caravan, the old wooden kind. The men and women were clad in the clothes of the turn of the century and when they came out in costume, it was with full classic sparkle and feathers. Nothing was out of place on stage, except maybe for a set of mysteriously unused rolling globes. All of the warmth and character of the big top during the height of its power was evident, ironically displayed in a 180-degree fashion towards the audience and not in the dynamic 360 degrees of a ring.
Longing for the quaint essence of a bygone era was the tone of the show, and we ate it up like hungry lions. But other than this nostalgia (a nostalgia everyone seems to embrace in the wake of the end of Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey and the Big Apple Circus) there was no real meat to the story. Did we expect a play or a circus, we asked ourselves? As a contemporary and traditional circus lover, I expected to go to the theater and see both. Instead, what I saw was a great set, beautiful costumes, a witty and entertaining ringmaster and a group of incredibly talented circus performers putting on a circus show. In other words, straight up circus. What a brilliant marketing concept! Act after act was announced after a little audience participation or a whimsical reminiscence about the old days. Then boom, time for the Cycling Cyclone. Florian was fantastic by the way, riding his bike tricks with all of the thrills and jaw dropping stunts you’d hope for.
Each group that came out, from the graceful lyra performer to the Fratelli Rossi (the brothers who do Icarian foot juggling) and beyond caused great waves of applause and gleeful whistles. The Flying Fins, who opened the show with their dynamic teeterboard act, or the Los Lopez Family who closed the show performing breathtaking feats on the high wire–all provided fun and thrills nonstop. Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) had just the right amount of panache, showmanship and magic tricks as he hoisted cute kids up on stage, cracking jokes, finding coins in odd places, and blinding us with his patter while waxing poetic about circus.
But it wasn’t until the elephants came out that I realized just how much I was being sucked in to the lore. The life-sized puppets were as beautiful as the real creatures and as graceful in their movements, thanks to the puppeteers. It was the caretakers though who interested me. How they lovingly trained the scamp of a baby elephant with positive reinforcement and swelling soundtrack. How embraced the beasts were by their whole circus family. I realized at that precise moment that the glamour and mystique of the circus was wafting so thickly that I was temporarily blinded by the stage lights, the glitter and the hype. Bravo.
But say what you will about the mythology of traditional circus–to adore its dusty carcass so heartily en masse with a thousand other gleeful people felt slightly false because it made circus seem as if it belonged solely in a museum. As if it ignored the very real existence of big top circuses that are currently touring the world and displaying those very same skill sets as acrobatics, aerials, contortion, tightwire, teeterboard, juggling and more. Of course, there is also a thriving contemporary circus art that has grown out of the traditional circus and flourishes in theaters and festivals around the world. How else could the clowns and contortionists have developed the prowess they showed us on opening night? Turning away from Circus 1903, I was fulfilled by simple circus, just as I have always been. Content with feelings but not a story. I was amazed by feats but no wiser about the actual practices of the era being idolized. I was dazzled by beauty and skill, but left wondering: If these same performers had driven up to a dusty lot on the south side and hauled up an actual tent, would they have received the turnout, the adoration, the applause, the benefits of guaranteed and decent wages? Probably not. Oh well, as Lenin once said, circus is people’s art, and so I I say we must rejoice in its survival in any form. Vive le cirque!
Circus 1903 is in town from until March 26 at the Oriental Theatre. Tickets range from $18 to $122.