Barnum's Kaleidoscape: A Palace of Wonders

Local Arts Reviews


Barnum's Kaleidoscape:A Palace of Wonders

Highland Mall,

through October 31

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Running away with the circus must be a child's dream. The things about it that are so powerfully alluring when you're young -- the superhuman performers, the exotic animals, the showy outfits, the mingling scents of popcorn and sawdust and sweat and manure, the promise of travel, the mystery, the danger! -- lose their luster as you age, build a life, make a home. You develop ties to people and things, come to appreciate comfort in ways that make being always on the move less appealing. You discover how much work a circus is: the never-ending strain of setting it up and taking it down, the ache of pushing muscles to their physical limits, the effort to transport, feed, and care for all those animals and humans. You may still find allure in the circus as an event, but you're no longer tempted by a life under the Big Top.

Then along comes a circus of plush sofas and red velvet chairs, of antique gold statues of giants and dragons, of an orchestra that casts a melodic spell of mystery with trumpet and cello, of a single ring so close that the action of the performers can be observed in acute detail. It is a circus in which physical skill is transformed into artistry, where the phenomenal displays of agility, strength, coordination, marksmanship, are presented with such a measured pace and such consideration that they inspire the awe not only of great daring but of great beauty, too.

This is Barnum's Kaleidoscape. Under a few gorgeous tents in the parking lot of Highland Mall, this new offshoot of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents a program of traditional circus acts -- aerialists, gymnasts, clowns, and trained animals -- in a setting of such extravagance and intimacy that it makes the experience fresh and astonishing. Inside the tents are a carpeted lobby with carts serving refreshments from hot dogs and popcorn to pasta, wine, fajitas, and margaritas (much of it contracted through local vendors such as Amy's Ice Cream, Earl Campbell Sausage, and Ninfa's). One hour before showtime, this area is open to audiences for leisurely dining and interaction with circus performers, then spectators pass through a tunnel of twinkling lights into a Big Top as lushly appointed as a 19th-century opera house, with cushy seats only 50 feet from the ring or less. It's a jaw-dropping environment for one accustomed to circuses of sawdust and bleachers or arena seats and cement. The splendor of it promises something spectacular.

Which the show delivers. From 15 feet up, without a net, Sylvia Zerbini slides off a trapeze bar until she is dangling from it by a heel. The acrobatic Kabanov propel themselves from a swinging platform three stories high onto mats held by their partners below. Alexandre Petrov crosses a tightwire while balancing on his forehead a long pole atop which perches his partner, Lucy Kirilova. They're daring acts, made all the more astounding by our proximity to them; we're so close, we can feel every inch of their distance from the floor. Similarly, we're so close to the Moroccans called the Golden Statues that we can see every muscle strain as they balance body upon body in remarkable ways, so close we can see the arrow from Guy Tell's crossbow sever the head of a rose from its stem, so close we can feel the breath of the white steeds that Zerbini sends galloping around the ring. And sometimes we're closer than that, as when the boomeranging plates of the juggler Picasso zip over our heads on their way back to his hands or when the harlequin Pipo and the sublime clown David Larible make their way into the house and over seats and onto our laps. We enjoy such intimacy in such a lush, cozy atmosphere that for the hours we are there we come to feel as at home in that world as in our own.

This circus may well be yet another upscale consumer attraction for the affluent among us. The ticket prices and the amounts charged for concessions and souvenirs are certainly not for the faint of budget. And yet the opulence of Barnum's Kaleidoscape serves a purpose; it whispers to us that this is something more than the interchangeable entertainment experience of modern civic centers and sports arenas. Like the circus of old, whose tents and sounds and smells made clear it was unlike anything else in your world, this circus tells us how singular it is with its lavishness and grandeur. And in that we grasp that it is not just something different but something special, much as the opera and ballet and theatre are. It is a palace of wonders, and its amazements and delights can be found nowhere else. By encouraging that idea and by bringing us closer to the performers, Barnum's Kaleidoscape heightens our joy in and appreciation of what circuses are -- and helps give the often undervalued performers in it their due: respect. It's as extraordinary for that as for delivering so much pleasure.

And damned if it didn't make me feel like running away with the circus.

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