Review: Physical Fest Serves Up Al Fresco Family Fun—Circus, Clowning and Dance in a City Park

Clown phone call
Jean Claudio (El Clown) connecting with his audience at Physical Fest. Photo provided by Beto Defreitas.

Physical Fest has wooed Chicago for eight years now, introducing wonderful international physical theater and circus works, but this year Physical Fest has had to adapt to pandemic restrictions like everyone else in the performing arts world. Their solution was a pleasant one—an outdoor family-friendly event in a new neighborhood that would reach a new audience and grow the festival’s visibility. Did I mention free?

To that end, Physical Fest took place over the weekend in Nichols Park in the Hyde Park area to the delight of show-starved crowds. The open-air event was complete with a small stage, a great sound system, and the region’s talent in physical theater and dance. To top it all off, there was a finale circus performance by 3 AM Theatre from Philadelphia.

Physical Fest organizers (and power couple) Marc Frost and Alice Da Cunha have done many things right since the beginning of their festival, from grassroots organization to sustainable growth, and local partnerships, to the ever-popular Scratch night for local performers. Another thing they have done right is to assure that Physical Fest maintains a diverse, multicultural presence in the performance world by their careful cultivation of shows and narratives that feature a variety of generations, voices, cultural heritages, genders, nationalities and ethnicities. This year was no exception and the result was a unifying mélange of celebration that could make a person proud to be a Chicagoan even while an overcrowded music festival (another Chicago tradition) featuring jammed packed trains and drunken youth staggering around the Loop midday did just the opposite a few short miles away.

Physical Fest also hosted a digital component to the happenings to align with their tradition of offering workshops and talkbacks. On July 30 they discussed the audio play Pangea by Limbik, and on August 31 the panel discussion will be on the State of the Performing Arts.

Live & In-Person

It all began with Ancestral Procession by Jerrell L. Henderson (theater director, puppeteer)—a sort of puppet parade and community jam to honor one’s ancestors. There was a short speech featuring community and connection (audience participation encouraged) that ended with song and dance.

Two short clown performance pieces, Nanatzin at the Trees and Cihuateteo and the Water were performed by Laura Crotte (Mexico/Chicago) (actor, clown, vocalist, director, storyteller, educator) that delved into culture, the second piece by accessing Aztec mythology. A spectral grandma-esque nature deity floated around an enormous old tree, connecting us to nature and music while muttering to herself and her audience in multiple tongues. Crotte’s character emanated the dignity and authority of a deity and a wise old grandmother combined and was riveting.

Another roaming performance piece called Espabila was presented by Jean Claudio, aka El Clown (Puerto Rico/Chicago). Espabila, or ‘wake up/perk up’ in English, brought Jean Claudio’s irrepressible energy to the audience, and also delivered some comedic sass. Like any clown worth his salt, Jean Claudio’s character has a way of cutting right through people’s armor and poking them in their squishy hearts. With a simple series of antics around tin can conversations, Jean Claudio brought out the cutest, the funniest, and sometimes the gnarliest aspects of humanity—mostly through the mouths of the eager children who were tripping over each other to interact with him. But, Jean Claudio didn’t just play to the kids, and his act had a rhythm to it that broke out of clown stereotype—including an improvised ground acrobatic dance number where his character crossed over into that of a poignant artist, adding dimension to our understanding of what a clown can do for humanity. If waking us up was his goal, he set the bar for the rest of the fest.

Next up was The Era Footwork Crew with She Pick the Speed—a feminist dance performance by a team of five talented dancers who not only impressed with their footwork, but also made their work engaging and accessible by leading a fun, pre-show workshop for the whole audience on this unique Chicago dance style. There was some rap, there was some ‘erk n jerk’ and there was a whole crowd of people hopping around in sync with the emcee. Then they performed their own piece, She Pick the Speed, to an appreciative audience who now had an inkling how much work went into mastering even one of their signature moves. A 2015 documentary outlines the origins of the dance style and its connection to Chicago energy.


Mindful Manipulations

Rounding out the full day of fun and interactivity, the 3 AM Theatre team took to the stage with their new show Mindful Manipulations playing to a packed lawn. This show, made by Philadelphia-based circus creators Kyle Driggs, Andrea Murillo, Luna Deasy, and Kira DiPietroantonio, was a small departure from their previous Physical Fest feature in 2019 titled Eventide. Their sleek performance style remained, showcasing high skill levels in juggling, dance, aerial, and contortion, but layered on, to the delight of the onlookers, was a big heap of comedic timing and playful antics juxtaposed with their elegant acts.

3 AM Theatre performs their Mindful Manipulations show at Physical Fest. Photos provided by Beto Defreitas.

In Mindful Manipulations, 3 AM maintained a contemporary art veneer while digging deep into the heart of classic circus—and that is a juggling trick many circus companies before them have tried and bombed at. Yet they pull it off, floating from sophisticated juggling and graceful hair hanging one minute to lip-syncing romance and contortion challenges the next. They did so while using the traditional circus props as well as more innovative ones, like record players and treadmills. And with these everyday objects and some spontaneous leaping off the stage to interact with the audience, we were looped into the action by the smashing of the fourth wall. 3 AM’s mix of mastery, poise, and comedy was an irresistible one for an hour-long family show on a sunny day in Chicago. I’m looking forward to seeing future works from this versatile young company.

If you wish to support Physical Fest and the work they do to build contemporary performing arts in Chicago, they are accepting donations through their Fractured Atlas page.

Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!