only comes to life when the wheel of death
In these days of constant gloom, it’s heartening to hear that the circus has arrived in town. This Cirque du Soleil-style offering becomes a regular festive element on the south shore, planting its marquee for a third year. While there’s a lot to admire inside this old-fashioned marquee, the 2021 iteration isn’t as smooth as the 2018 debut production. Some of the acts have an under-repaired look, and on opening night there were more duds, drops and falls than you would ever have seen with Cirque du Soleil.
Director Neil Dorward takes a different approach to Montreal circus maestros. While Circus likes to tie their shows together using binding themes which are very tedious, here we have Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) to fill in the gaps between the stunts. Williamson valiantly struggles to be heard above the booming recorded music and is entitled to too many interactive slots with bewildered children in the audience. He has a quick wit and makes adults laugh, but he goes beyond welcoming.
The idea behind Circus 1903 is that we are taking a trip back into the heyday of this art form, when Barnum and Bailey’s greatest show on Earth returned to the United States after a five-year tour of Europe. A key feature of the entertainment at the time was a selection of exotic creatures, and this is ingeniously recognized via two delightful articulated puppet elephants that are animated by a group of puppeteers who worked on the creatures of War Horse.
The biggest beast, Queenie, maneuvered by three of them, has floppy ears and soulful eyes. We must not forget that these animals are indeed only puppets, otherwise it would be too painful to see them running around and frightened in all the hustle and bustle behind the scenes.
The height and width of the Royal Festival Hall stage is ideal for all kinds of acrobatic high jinxes, but the dizzying dimensions remain woefully underutilized. The evening starts off with a bang, thanks to a quartet of performers on a seesaw, an object that resembles a playground swing, even if the antics that take place there are anything but child’s play.