I’m not even sure what a circus is anymore. Though they always seem to involve some kind of physical daring and a strange, drifty sense of humor, their snappy one-liners get lost in the big top — or, in the case of the Kinetic Arts’ annual holiday show, Circus Veritas, the rather large warehouse. What I am sure of is that whatever the circus is in 2017, Kinetic Arts has found a way to its slippery soul.
Under Jaron Hollander's inventive direction, the company's productions are more about a state of mind than mind-boggling stunts. There are many feats, some of them verging on the spectacular, but they occur in the service of conveying the aspirations and failures of people. We aren’t watching acrobats and contortionists, but vain, silly, headlong characters who fly through the air in nutty poses, and often for all the wrong reasons.
The show’s emcee, Frank Conner Ponzi III (a sly Ross Travis), starts the evening by simply talking to the audience, a calming approach in a world overcome by spectacle and sensation. He’s one of these southern hucksters, halfway between a minister and a snake-oil salesman, and his con is so obvious that it’s comforting rather than menacing.
Ponzi III tries to sell a special seat for $100, plies the audience for volunteers, and promises to help us overcome the “evil snake of reality.” The atmosphere is casual, intimate, and jokey, though by the end, this afterthought of a beginning will approach something close to a philosophy.
When the cast appears in monk costumes and wanders through the audience asking, “My name is John the Baptist, who are you?” (or the “Easter Bunny,” or “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” or “Mary Poppins” or “A music box ballerina”), the whole piece has the feel of a fairytale world springing to life.
Then and only then do we get anything close to a typical circus act, as the gang suddenly jumps, flips, and artfully stumbles around a hole in the ground. And then a hole on the move. And finally a hole in the air. The effect is magical, and the magic is the product of not just skill, but also of situation.
Over and over again, the show slips from the ordinary to sudden and breathtaking displays of athleticism and imagination. Popcorn (Ellie Rossi) flips off a T-shirt to climb a rope and gets hopelessly entangled in it. Every time she seems to escape the shirt's clutches, she somehow manages to get further twisted in its vise grip. It's as if we can never shake the mundane and petty, no matter how lofty our dreams.
Gloria (Katherine Hutchinson) pretentiously announces that she is a liar and has dedicated her life to ballet. Following her, Jane Doe (Emily Rose Phillips) announces that she is also a liar, also named Gloria, and has also dedicated her life to ballet. In response, Gloria scurries up a blue silk rope at least 30 feet into the air to show off her talents in peace. Doe then hurriedly sets up a blue silk rope, scurries up to her rival, and attempts to mimic and surpass Gloria's every maneuver.
The pleasure these two fools take in outdoing the other is so human and ordinary that you forget that they’re flipping, twirling, and jousting at a ridiculous height and without a net. The individual act of the circus becomes a drama of idiots; rather than their freakish abilities setting them apart, every bit of goofball daring brings them closer to us.
This has an interesting effect. Awe, the typical provenance of the circus, is cast aside for a sense of complicity and identification. And that allows for the performance to veer off in shifty, strange directions. There’s a terrific set piece in the second act that begins with Ponzi III announcing, “This is the part where we break character and really talk to you.”
And one after one, the cast speaks delicately into a microphone, emulating the hushed voice of liberal piety. “I grew up with so much privilege I had to court pain and misery to achieve artistic relevance.” “I couldn’t get my Chinese acrobatic coach to beat me and so I had to do it myself.” “I gave up skiing and horseback riding so I could excel at ballet.” It’s as if we’ve been suddenly thrust into a Bay Area dinner party where rich leftists compete for “Most Traumatic Life Story.”
Circus Veritas imagines a world where everything is a kind of lie, even the most skillful performances, or maybe especially those. And so it's shocking to think that all these moments of true daring are the product of nothing more than the most everyday of human concerns -- to be greater than we are, to lord it over others, to fight for the briefest moment of any kind of transcendence. And to embrace the deceit that gets us there.
This is tricky and liberating holiday fare.
‘Circus Veritas’ runs through Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland. For tickets and information, see here.