Low pantomime and high visual poetry mix in an uneven A Circus of Tales
The Theatre de la Jeune Lune's company-created A Circus of Tales combines wacky, pantomime-style fairy tale telling with stunning aerial ballet, but not until well into the performance do the two forms begin to work as one. When the pantomime nonsense over-reaches itself in the first act to the point that the through-lines of stories become scrambled, I disengaged; but when the company settles to tell a tale, the effect is as beguiling as poetry.
The stories are drawn from "Il Pentamerone," Italian fairy tales that are less familiar to most American audiences than the Grimm tales. But the basics are familiar; flawed characters pursue ambitions with single-minded determination.
In a role he clearly relishes, Steven Epp, dressed in hairy-legged drag, plays one of two hags. He makes a great entrance, claiming to know theater and likening Hamlet to Jerry Springer. Epp's Hag acts as a narrator and launches an array of stories, some of which the cast simply gives up on. Two spoofy through-stories do survive, although they lost me en route. One concerns the King's Youngest Daughter, a fat-as-butter ugly duck played by Barbra Berlovitz, whose single aim in life is to devour food. The other story belongs to Vincent Gracieux's nicely played Anthony, a fool with dandruff and an immense, puckered belly button, who wants to become a king. Oh, and both stories involve frogs.
This broad humor of pantomime is amusing in parts, but it's ragged and it loses its path. In much of the first act, the stories are told against a busy circus of acrobatic tumbling and aerial goings-on that only indirectly relate to the muddled stories below. But when director Robert Rosen integrates the acrobatics into the story telling, they infuse Circus with magic.
The first real glimpse of this potential comes at the end of the first act in the beautifully told tale of six brothers who are turned into swans, and it's eye and heart-pleasingly realized in the second act in the convoluted tale of a poor young woman, Parmatella, played by Christina Baldwin. Parmatella is nearly undone by her curiosity, and the prince (Jason Lambert,) who searches for and finds absolute happiness, is undone by his discontent. As the story unfolds, the aerialists become a part of the telling, dancing the emotions within the story and enacting the Winds in the finest sequence of the show.
Meg Elias-Emery's five aerialists slide and twine themselves up ropes, and one young woman spreads her toes to grip the rope and climbs with the ease of a monkey. On single and triple-barred trapezes, great hoops and huge drops of fabric (silks), they spin and weave and dance, creating a ballet of the air, high among the clouds of Epp and Gracieux's set. Particularly dramatic are the speed spinning on two single ropes, the swan flight that flings out over the audience and the free-fall drop within the wrap of silks.
Even soprano Baldwin takes to a trapeze to sing as Pagaluna, as she teases the two hags and a pretty maiden below. Baldwin also provides one of those gem-bright details that are a hallmark of Jeune Lune productions. She enters as a coy girl in a frilly dress and girlish mannerisms, turns 180 degrees and is a trousered young man, with sideburns, a mannish gait and voice.
High atop the central set element, composer Eric Jensen keyboards his playful score for Circus, along with percussionists Benjamin Berlovitz Desbois and Daniel Lori.
When Jeune Lune's ensemble moves beyond the over-blown pantomime that opens the show and combines simple story telling with aerial performance, their innovative Circus opens into the enchantment of, well, a fairy tale.
A Circus of Tales funs December 17 - January 16. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. $10-$26. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-333-6200, or www.jeunelune.com.