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The Circus of Life

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Time flies when you're having fun. It's hard to believe that half a century has passed since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum debuted at the Alvin Theatre on May 8, 1962.

Directed by George Abbott (who was then 75 years old), this was the first major Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Filled with solid gags written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, the show's plot was based on a series of short plays by the ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)

Last year, as part of its Hidden Classics series, San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater offered a reading of Miles Gloriosus (which, along with Pseudolus and Mostellaria, provided the inspiration for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Though the play's set-ups and jokes may be more than 2,000 years old, they remain remarkably resilient to the passage of time.

The basic material (mistaken identity, sexual innuendo, young lovers frustrated by the older generation) is as old as the hills. Sexual jokes about dirty old men have been a staple of Italy's commedia dell'arte as well as tools of the baggy pants comedians who worked in burlesque and vaudeville.

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Domina (Rebecca Faiola) and Senex (Jesse Caldwell) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

One of the factors which contributed to Forum's great success was the fact that most of the actors involved in the original production had been exposed to low comedy throughout their lives (some had even worked in vaudeville). For Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine, Raymond Walburn, and David Burns, Forum's low-down dirty jokes were familiar territory.

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Hysterium (John Tichenor) and Erronius (Stu Klitsner) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Woodminster Summer Musicals recently revived A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as part of its 2012 season with a cast headed by Trente Morant as Pseudolus. The opening night performance hit a few bumps as lead actors went up on their lines. I was surprised to notice a key passage of the overture missing (as well as "Pretty Little Picture," which is rarely performed).

Directed by Joel Schlader, the performance was quite enjoyable (this show is so brilliantly constructed that it is almost foolproof). Megan Gallup and Tyler Costin were most appealing as the young (virginal) lovers. While Calvin Smith (Miles Gloriosus), Stu Klitsner (Erronius), Kelly Houston (Marcus Lycus), and Jesse Caldwell (Senex) were obviously enjoying themselves, it soon became obvious that only two of the actors onstage really understood the style required for this show.

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Hysterium (John Tichenor) and Domina (Rebecca Faiola) in
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

John Tichenor's Hysterium and Rebecca Faiola's Domina offered hilarious renderings of classic comic characters. Much to my surprise, Trente Morant's Pseudolus seemed more intent on acting like an adorable puppy rather than an aggressive slave who will go to any lengths to secure his freedom.

The oddest thing was the feeling that, because Woodminster is essentially a "family friendly" production company, Schlader's staging was aimed to please an audience used to television sit-coms rather than old-fashioned bawdiness. A Forum whose Pseudolus doesn't command his audience's attention (and who misses some great comedic opportunities) has a weak leader for what should be a brutally funny farce.

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Senex (Jesse Caldwell), Hysterium (John Tichenor), Lycus
(Kelly Houston) and Pseudolus (Trente Morant) perform
"Everybody Ought To Have A Maid" (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

In 2010, the Williamstown Theatre Festival staged an all-male version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Christopher Fitzgerald as Pseudolus. How I'd love to see THAT production staged somewhere in the Bay area!

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometime around 1955, my best friend and his father took me with them to the circus. Those were not great times for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Movies and television had stolen a large part of the circus's traditional audience and some of its "freak show" attractions (hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, deformed animals with genetic mutations) had started to lose their appeal.

Just look at how times have changed:

  • Many tattooed men and women are now heavily inked.
  • Body piercing is old hat.
  • Little People, Big World is a popular reality television show.
  • Anabolic steroids have made "The Strong Man" obsolete.
  • Bearded ladies may be out partying as drag kings.
  • Extremely tall men (such as the 7'6" Yao Ming) are now more likely to become basketball superstars than circus freaks.
  • The growing transgender rights movement has encouraged people to proudly claim their gender identities and define themselves as they wish.
  • Fire-eaters and sword-swallowers are now considered "old school."

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Madame Gustika of the Duckbill Tribe as photographed on
April 12, 1930 while smoking a pipe with an extended
mouthpiece to fit the contours of her lips
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

During the past quarter century, traditional circuses have frequently been targeted by animal rights protesters. Audience market share has increasingly been captured by Cirque du Soleil's growing empire of worldwide entertainment aimed at more upscale audiences.

In recent years I've grown increasingly curious about how a traditional circus like Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey has embraced new stage technologies. A chance to attend a recent performance of its Dragons show at Oakland's Oracle Arena proved to be fascinating. A series of LED-based digital display boards are lowered at frequent intervals to block the audience's view and distract people as stagehands arrange the floor for upcoming acts (such as live animals).

First, let me say that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus still lives up to its reputation as "The Greatest Show On Earth." As you can see in the following rehearsal footage, many of the smaller dragons and floats are actually built around what looks like a Segway PT that has been tricked out for circus routines. In the following video clip, director/choreographer Shanda Sawyer discusses some of the challenges she faced in building a show around the theme of "Dragons."

With Johnathon Lee Iverson acting as Ringmaster (and Paulo dos Santos as his sidekick), traditional acrobatic acts such as Troupe Scala (from the Cuban National Circus School), the Shaolin Troupe, and The Flying Caceras continue to amaze audiences. Act I's Cossacks act had some impressive horseback riding tricks that the public will never see Ann Romney perform.

Animal trainer Alexander Lacey has a stunning act that mixes big cats (lions and tigers) together in one steel cage.

As astounding as Lacey's act may be, I was more amazed watching the Panfilov Circus Family. Click here to witness their astonishing "trained housecats" act.

By the time the 90-minute-long first act reached its conclusion, I found myself wondering if there was anything left for Ringling Brothers to trot out onto the arena floor. After all, how do you top an Asian elephant leaning back on a large stool and merrily flashing her mammoth mammaries at you?

Dragons also had plenty of Asian beefcake on display, led by the show's Kung Fu Kings, Junjie Sun and Guojing Qin.

Overall impressions? Cirque du Soleil's shows are built upon a foundation of better music and greater artistry. Some of the Cirque shows are also starting to experiment with new ways to incorporate film into the basic set design.

However, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus has a raw vitality which derives from its motorcycle acts, the sheer size of its playing field, the natural appeal of its animal acts, and the Ringmaster's constant attempts to draw the audience into the performance.

Perhaps the strangest moment for me came while listening to the Ringmaster challenge his audience (children of all ages) to SCREAM their heads off. It made me realize that, back when I was a kid, we were never, ever encouraged to scream. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape