Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Circus Abyssinia was created by brothers Binyam ("Bichu") and Mehari ("Bibi") Tesfamariam. As boys, Bichu and Bibi had dreams of being circus performers, but there were no circuses, nor schools for circus artists in their native Ethiopia. As teenagers working at teaching themselves, they seized an opportunity to go to England, developed a juggling act that defies reason, and eventually joined the acclaimed, iconoclastic Gifford's Circus. Meanwhile, circus schools actually began to sprout back in their homeland, and the brothers used their own success to support those ventures. Two years ago, Bichu and Bibi returned to Ethiopia and recruited the best of the talent at those schools to form Circus Abyssiniaa nod to the ancient name for Ethiopia, and the ancient heritage of circus arts.
In the brief time since its formation, Circus Abyssinia has performed in Africa, Europe, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and at New York City's New Victory Theatre. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Children's Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter Brosius saw Circus Abyssinia perform and was immediately determined to bring this daring, entertaining and inspiring group to young audiences in Minnesota. Not that Circus Abyssinia is strictly a kids program. Far from it. The exquisite grace, precise timing, strength and fortitude, brilliance in conception, and humor with which each act is performed appeal to all ages.
The entire production is set to a pulsating soundtrack, by primarily contemporary popular Ethiopian musicians, in styles that embrace electronica, hip-hop, jazz, and straight-up rock. Also included, to lend some genuine circus music, is English singer, composer, and visual artist Sarah Llewellyn's "Bibi and Bichu," part of her score for Yasmine, Gifford's Circus's 2010 production. The music plays between acts as ensemble members fill the stage, dancing to highly energized choreography devised by Cat Smyth.
The tag line Ethiopian Dreams added to the title refers to the wafer-thin semblance of a storyline used to frame the show, with Cal McCrystal, who directed many Gifford's Circus productions, credited as its writer. It opens with two young boys representing the young and aspiring a young Bichu and Bibi, attempting to juggle. The moon is out and they beseech its spirit to enable them to become glorious circus performers. The acts that follow are the dreams of these two boys, anticipating the success they will have, as the adult Bichu and Bibi replace the boys on stage. Thirteen different acts appear (the program lists fourteen, but one was omitted from the performance I attended), leading up to the full ensemble gathered for a rousing finale that brings young Bichu and Bib's dream to fruition.
Of course, the storyline is the last thing the audience will remember or care about. Circus Abyssinia is all about the physical strength, courage, grace, imagination, concentration, collaboration and, not to be discounted, humor displayed by these performers. Each act combines the entire package of these traits, as in the second to appear, two beautiful young women who dazzle us with the flexibility with which they run through a series of contortionist poses, piling one upon the other in ways that defy both gravity and range-of-motion as most of us know it. The two appear out of a mist from the rear of the stage, slithery in movement and wearing skin-tight reptilian-patterned unitardsthe fantastic costumes were designed or found by Bichu in partnership with the performers who wear them. Their act raises the possibility of some genetic material dispensed by a pair of cobras having found its way into these performers. When finished, the two women make their way off stage, their backs to the audience, then pause and glance over their shoulders with a look that conveys an attitude of smug superioritya brilliant touch that drew a hearty round of laughter.
Magnify this by fourteen acts, each dazzling in its own way, and you will have an idea of the volume of entertainment being dispensed. Everyone will have their favorites. I was especially taken by the hoop divers, the cloth spinners (with squares of cloth spinning madly on upturned hands and feet), and the fabulous juggling by Bibi and Bichu, but every act is a winner in its way. The clown gives a tasteful performance that is silly but never rude, and makes very good use of audience participation.
Adding to the overall effect is the inventive lighting designed by Mark Whatmough, which uses fades and blackouts effectively to make performers appear or disappear before our eyes, as well as creating striking flashing, multi-hued streams of light that make the tricks appear even more spectacular then they already are.
By the way, just to make it clear, this is a circus completely without animals. Those who are hoping to see trained elephants or lions or seals should temper their expectations, though I suspect more audience members will be relieved, given the concerns over reports of animal mistreatment by circuses.
For anyone bringing their small fry to this production hoping to instill in them a love of playgoing, this will be a one-off. It certainly is likely to create new young fans of Children's Theatre Company, but not offer them the particular rewards of following a clever story told through speech, music, movement, costumes, lighting, sound and scenery. Children's Theatre Company has a full season of other works better suited to accomplish that end.
What children can gain from these performances, in addition to feelings of awe and delight, is the value of commitment to a dream and a goal that each of these performers exhibits, the ability to exercise control over body and mind, to concentrate on a task without distraction, to work in cohort with others so that your movements intersect with their like clockwork, and to proceed with self-confidence to make the incredible turn into the achievable. These are valuable lessons for young people. Let's face it, they are good for older people as well, as all of us can use a refresher course now and again. What more joyful way can you imagine to renew the life force that motivates us to seek our own dreams?
Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams runs through October 20, 2019, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $56.00 - $66.00; ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets; $10.00 discount for children up to age 17, full time college students, seniors (age 62 and up), and military adults. Rush Tickets: Starting two hours prior to each performance, unsold seats will go on sale for $20, $15.00 for children, students, and seniors (age 62+) at the CTC Ticket Office, in person only. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by all ages.
Co-Creators and Producers: Mehari "Bibi" Tesfamariam and Binyam "Bichu" Tesfamariam; Director: Binyam "Bichu" Tesfamariam; Writer: Cal McCrystal; Choreographer: Kat Smyth; Lighting Design: Mark Whatmough; Stage Manager: Baby Cooke.
Cast: Etsegenet Ashenafi, Endalkachew Belaynehe, Tesfamichael Bilal, Betelhem Dejene, Befekadu Esmael, Semeret Getachew, Daniel Gezahegn, Filmon Haregot, Hailekiros Kidanu, Abraham Lemma, Ermiyas Manayeh, Alemayehu Mulugeta, Ezera Nigusse, Helen Shimeles, Abraham Tadesse, Binyam "Bichu" Tesfamariam, Mehari "Bibi" Tesfamariam, Tarekegn Teshome, Hanna Tina.