Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Ringling International Arts Festival 2015
The Ringling Museum

The 2015 edition of Ringling International Arts Festival played from October 15-18 at various sites on The Ringling Museum/FSU campus and featured sic choices, all with an Asian theme. Is it possible that the festival is now in its 7th year? Yes, it is possible, and it seems that it grows just a little larger each year, bigger shows and bigger crowds. Originally a co-production with Mikhail Baryshnikov's Arts Center, The Ringling Museum now presents this fringe-type festival on its own. This year I was able to see two productions, Shank's Mare, by Tom Lee, and Khmer Metal, Phare: The Cambodian Circus.

I saw Phare: The Cambodian Circus on Saturday evening along with a large crowd in the largest auditorium in use for the festival, The Mertz Theater, seating capacity a bit over 500. All of the performers are graduates of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School in Battambang, Cambodia. "In 2013 the school created Phare: The Cambodian Circus as a social enterprise in Siem Reap, Cambodia ... The mission was to create job opportunities for graduates of the circus school ..."

We are in a seedy bar run by two brothers. The storyline is conveyed partly by skill acts and includes sexual couplings and uncouplings, a stolen tablet which is later sold back, and the usual business of a bar. It took me some time to warm up to a presentation style that is vastly different from what Americans and Europeans are used to in circus. Because I am attuned to spangly costumes and lighting to help focus, I didn't realize at first at what level these performers were working. The first act, using the large yo-yo type mechanism on a string held between two sticks, was spectacular doing some of the most dazzling tricks I have ever seen. Then came a male-female duo doing hand balancing which was very good, but I have seen better. Some random tumbling was good, but the finale with all the performers working together—three high pyramids, somersaults off and onto them—was spectacular. There were some misses here and there, to be expected with the high level of difficulty, but I loved that they turned to the audience to ask permission to just try it again. The storyline added an interesting twist and it all made for an effective entertainment. Circus buff that I am, I enjoyed the skill acts as presented culturally differently.

On Saturday afternoon I saw Shank's Mare by Tom Lee (U.S.) and Koryu Nishikawa V (Japan). It was one of the most memorable things I have ever seen on a stage, after many years of attending live entertainment of all types. I was running around on Sunday morning telling anyone I could corner who I thought might be interested that there was one more performance and not to miss it. (For those one the East Coast, Shank's Mare will be performed at La MaMa in New York November 9-15, 2015.) The show evolves through Kuruma Ningyo Puppetry "where a single performer seated on a small rolling cart operates a puppet figure by holding the puppet's feet between his toes. The puppet's head and left hand are controlled by the puppeteer's left hand. The puppeteer manipulates the puppet's right hand with his right hand." This alone would have made for an interesting performance but Mr. Lee has added a diorama of the story locations stage left and projections of what the puppets are doing in the diorama locations. Therefore the audience is seeing three versions of everything that is being shown.

The fairly simple story involves a young astronomer, an older man who becomes his mentor/master, and a third character in royal costuming who seems to be an omniscient observer of the relationship. I have tried to come up with positive adjectives to convey the experience but nothing comes close to describing the "wow" factor. Quite simply, it's one of the most arresting theatrical experiences I have ever had.

In my third year of covering Ringling International Arts Festival, I grow ever more thankful for the opportunity to experience unusual fare. I hope that my readers will promise to treat themselves to this wonderful event in October 2016.

Ringling International Arts Festival, produced by Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road Sarasota, FL 34243 1-800-660-4278 (Box Office), or

Photo: Courtesy of RIAF

--William S. Oser

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