Circus 1903

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 23, 2017

Circus 1903

"Circus 1903-The Golden Age of Circus" combines the creative talent behind "The Illusionists" and the puppeteers who created "War Horse" for the National Theater with acts of daring and breathtaking physical skill.

The resulting show, although occasionally lagging in the narrative department, successfully mines nostalgia for what the circus once was (or at least what it's remembered to be) and sets a series of truly amazing performers against a visually stunning backdrop.

The production opens with Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (illusionist David Williamson) hawking popcorn from the floor of the theater and warming the crowd up with patter that mostly hits the spot between corny gags from centuries ago and sly contemporary humor. With the help of a child volunteer, he moves to the stage and explains exactly how big a deal Circus Day would have been for any given town in 1903. By way of demonstration, and with a wave of his hand, Willy activates the scene, or rather the behind-the-scenes setting for the first act.

To the accompaniment of a rousing score by Evan Jolly, the Flying Fins (Artur Ivankovich, Petter Vastermark and AJ Saltalamacchia) perform their teeterboard act while members of the ensemble rush to and fro, miming the "backstage" frenzy as the circus company readies for the spectacle that really began the moment the train pulled into town. The act is more than impressive, though the fact that none of the other performers in the first act has a role the "setting up" narrative device detracts to a certain extent.

Willy returns throughout the first act in various guises. His introductions to the Cycling Cyclone, Florian Blümmel, and the foot-juggling Fratelli Rossi (Alejandro and Ricardo Rossi) are relatively straightforward, whereas Williamson gives a more extended prelude to aerialist Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova) that relays more of the history of such acts. Leading into the jaw-dropping performance of the Elastic Dislocationist (Senayet Asefa Amare), he plays the part of a harried sideshow barker for some mostly charming visual comedy surrounding "failed" acts.

In this last case, the narrative manages a nod to the fact that the dark and problematic side of "freak show" attractions requires careful navigation a hundred years on from the show's setting.

Cognizance of the politics of the circus, particularly in light of the fact that Ringling Bros. will soon fold The Greatest Show on Earth, is also evident in the lack of narrative or set-up accompanying the reveal of Queenie and Peanut, the majestic elephant and her mischievous child. Instead, ensemble members quietly tend to the animals in a moving scene that's halfway between pantomime and ballet.

Although Jolly's score and Paul Smith's lighting design are excellent throughout, both are particularly effective here as all the action draws back to give these two marvels of design and artistry (puppetry direction by Mervyn Millar, and Chris Milford, Daniel Fanning, Henry Maynard, Jessica Spalis, puppeteer) center stage.

The first act ends with the Ringmaster calling on the crew as a whole to raise the canvas and put on their game faces. With the whole cast assembled, Todd Edward Ivins scenic design finds its full, dazzling expression, and in a single, collective gesture, the cast shed their work clothes to reveal Angela Aaron's beautifully detailed vintage costume design.

The second act, set in the circus proper, suffers a bit more from overburden of schtick. Although Williamson is a talented performer, and there's more than a little theatrical magic to be had in involving young children from the audience in the performance, a trick with a puppet and four children, ranging in age from 5 to 8, goes on long enough leave the act oddly balanced with the admittedly dazzling juggling (Francois Borie as the Great Gaston) and high-wire acts (Los Lopez) before the finale.

In fairness to the show, it's worth noting that several listed acts did not seem to be on the bill in Chicago, possibly due to the limitations of the space.

"Circus 1903-The Golden Age of Circus" runs through March 26 at The Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, in Chicago. For tickets or information, call 800-775-2000 or visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.