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Cirkopolis and Odds and Ends — 1812, Dance Celebration, Macbeth, and Porgy and Bess

Cirk interior“Cirkopolis” is unique among shows that bring circus skills to the theater. The piece, produced by Cirque Éloize and directed by Dave St. Pierre and Jeannot Painchaud, has an actual story and accompanying theme that threads through the various acrobatic, tumbling, juggling, rope, hoop, and strongman acts and adds comedy and heart to the entertainment.

Black-and-white graphic of gears, girders, and mechanical objects recall Painchaud’s model for “Cirkopolis,” Fritz Lang’s 1929 film classic, “Metropolis,” which showed people busily but robotically going about workaday lives in a city that placed industry, and the Industrial Revolution, about human spirit and élan. In opening scenes, I was more reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s film from 1930, “Modern Times.”

Chaplin, who continued to produce silent movies in spite of the advent of “talkies,” presents a bleak world in which his little tramp, wearing an undershirt and suspenders instead of the usual tailcoat, white shirt, and bow tie, toils all day in a machine shop where his sole function is to stand in one spot and turn each bolt that comes his way via an assembly line. Soon, Chaplin’s character is so inured to turning his right wrist every three seconds, he makes the bolting motion even when he is away from the factory, as if his hand was perpetually attached to a wrench.

The focal character in “Cirkopolis” does not work on an assembly line. He is a clerk in an office of some large industrial business. All day, insistent, humorless people drop stacks of paper on his desk, and he takes each piece and stamps it in an automatic motion as mechanical as Chaplin’s man with the wrench.

“Cirkopolis” allows him variations. Sometimes he cheat and stamps the top page of a stack while moving 100 pages to the corner of his desk where “finished” papers land. Sometimes he does trick with the papers such as turning two stacks into accordian-like piles with something in the middle. No matter what the clerk does, it’s obvious his daily task is tedious, boring, and lacking in challenge or motivation. The guy’s job half puts him to sleep, and no one would be surprised if he collapsed from ennui at his desk.

Few around the clerk seem better situated. Other characters march through the corridors of the business  as if they were in a military parade. All in sight look like the gnomes of Zurich, regimented and without individuality, present to serve a purpose that seems unable to be leavened by taking a different approach to a job or, heaven forfend, having fun.

Then, of course, there are some rebels, some who do not move in lockstep and go about their business mechanically. These people do flips, cartwheels, and somersaults in the hall. These people show their strength and muscle by lifting and supporting each other in ways that require amazing might, flexibility, and talent.

As opposed to marching through life, these people dance through it. They show the wonder of the human body by being able to move into and hold seemingly impossible moves. Their muscle control, stamina, and discipline is more than impressive. It is marvelous in the most literal sense of the word, an act to generate wonder, awe, and appreciation.

Of course, the people who break out of routine are the acrobats and circus performers who were walking in robotic rhythm moments before. Our clerk admires them and wants to emulate them. We, the “Cirkopolis” audience, delight in the skill, dexterity, beauty, and wit before us. St. Pierre and Painchaud give depth to their show by always reverting back to the clerk and his quest to relieve his rut and be as agile and free as the performers he sees around him. They give us entertainment by having a wonderful array of adroit and good looking circus professionals to amuse us and by having a sure knack of when to change routines so no sequence or act becomes too stale or tiresome.

The Cirque Éloize performers are astounding. They make their magnificent feats look so effortless, as if they had no sense of touch, no rigidity, and no struggle with pain or endurance.

We and our Chaplinesque lead character are treated to two different hoop acts, one by a lone woman who seems to defy physics with her antics, another by two men who show their power and flexibility on an apparatus that looks like a hollowed tire rim. Two men combine acrobatics with feats of incredible strength as they catch each other in mid-air and balance each other in a panoply of mesmerizing ways.

There is a man who maneuvers two pieces of cloth to serve like rings. Another, a woman, makes a rope look like a joy to climb and do tricks with. Yet others, a man and a woman defy gravity and the power of human balance by climbing a pole that no visible grips or steps.

Trampolines and see-saws become part of the “Cirkopolis” act, as do juggling of various objects in various ways and displays of acrobatics and muscular control that make you blush when you realize you have to hold on the arm of your seat to rise from your chair.

Amazing is the word for the Cirque Éloize troupe. Our hero gets into several acts, but the sweetest in one that involves a dress, a scarf, a hat, some hangers, and a kind of tightrope walking.

At 85 minutes, “Cirkopolis” maintains its welcome. St. Pierre and Painchaud deliver a creative show that is more intimate, accessible, and thematic than other circus productions for theaters. It provides a good contrast to the circus where Painchaud trained, Cirque du Soleil, a contrast that shows the value of both Soleil and Éloize as producing organizations.

“Cirkopolis” runs from Friday, March 14 to Sunday, March 16 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street (between Locust and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $75 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-731-3333 or by going online to www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.

AN EVENING OF SHTICK, SCHMALTZ, and TUMMELING WITH 1812 PRODUCTIONS

I hope Jennifer Childs is planning to write a book on the history of comedy. She already knows where one of the first laughs recorded in literature occurs, and her scholarship about comedy, comedians, and comic performance is as admirable as it is astounding.

Childs’s bounty of knowledge cries out to be shared, and Jen obliges in various ways through her programming at 1812 Productions, where she is a co-founder and the artistic director. Heck, she’s the head poobah of the whole schmeer.

One annual series of comic programs takes the name of “An Evening Without…” because the people who create the comedy being featured do not appear, but their creativity and gift for making people laugh does.

For two days this week, Childs and an ensemble that includes Tom Shotkin, David Ingram, and Karen Getz explored Jewish humor in a program called “An Evening Without the Catskills” that celebrated the men and women who honed their craft entertaining Jewish people who wanted to escape the city for a week in the mountains.

You know that although Jews love humor and joking, they are not the easiest audience in the world. “If Aunt Pearl can make me laugh as much as Henny Youngman, just by telling me about her day shopping at Lohmann’s, why should I pay good money to see a pisher  like Georgie Jessel or Shelley Berman or Billy Crystal at some fancy schmantzy resort?”

I made up that last riff, but Childs, Shotkin, Ingram, and Getz regaled with actual jokes told by everyone from seminal comedians like Sophie Tucker and Youngman to the next generation — Berman, Nichols & May, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar — and the next generation — Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Totie Fields, Betty Walker — and a more current group, the youngest of which is probably pushing 60 and possibly from the 70 end — Crystal, David Steinberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Robert Klein. Sarah Silverman and some real squirts find themselves included as well.

The 1812 cast has a grand time defining what is Jewish and what is goyish. They to into their own experiences with Getz telling a story that would have had me peeing, but I heard the plumbing at Plays & Players, where “An Evening Without…” was stage, so I decided to practice water discipline — WASP-like of me, I know — until I could get to something I could flush.

I related to all of the personal stories, particularly Shotkin’s which involved an “Annie Hall” type dinner in which he was a guest as a Protestant house that only saw a Jew when they looked at the crucifix at their church. It reminded me of the time a friend of mine’s father was telling me about a big tsimmes in his Italian family and started a paragraph with, “Unfortunately she was a Jewish girl,” ending abruptly when he noticed the volume of my nose, one of at least two dead giveaways, and telling me he didn’t mean me. (Of course not.)

Shotkin, by the way, neatly ended his tale of Easter dinner among Presbyterians, by commenting on the cuisine, “Dynamite ham.” Nice, and witty homage there, Tom.

Ingram slayed the room with a Shelley Berman telephone routine that involved young Sheldon asking his father, a Chicago deli owner, for $100 to use in New York for acting lessons. Childs did her bang-on Joan Rivers. All were slick with delivery and kvelling with respect for America’s great comic forefathers.

I mentioned to 1812’s congenial press rep, Tyler Melchior, pretty funny in his own right, that I could see “An Evening Without the Catskills” again and again and that I look forward to more special events like it.

I give credit to all involved with the show, but I pay tribute to Childs, who more than anyone I know, appreciates the humor of the world’s great comics, from Sarah, who she quotes from Genesis, to Sarah Silverman, who  was screwing Matt Damon. Dedication like Childs’s is rare among theater folk today. I am especially thrilled that she shares what she knows and, in combination with several adept artists, returns the diamonds Tucker, Allen, and Rivers mined to the stage, where they belong.

Now I can’t resist two additions to “An Evening Without…” These are from memory, so they may not be exact and could be embellished. Just a little.

Off all the comics who define the difference between Gentiles and Jews, Jackie Mason has it down the best.

“How can you tell you’re in a Jewish neighborhood?” Mason asks. “Easy. Not one car hood is raised. You can go block after block, and you’ll never see someone’s head poking under a hood looking at a motor. As if a Jew would know where to find the motor. Or care. A Jew, if his car isn’t working properly, say for instance the radio isn’t picking up a favored station, takes the car back to dealer and says, ‘This piece of junk you palmed off on me is broke. Take it back. I don’t want it. Give me one that works.'” No fiddling under the roof, so to speak.

Mason also asks, “Did you ever hear of anyone who was afraid to walk in a Jewish neighborhood? I’m only asking for research. Who here would be scared to walk in a Jewish neighborhood? No one. Of course. I could have predicted the outcome. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you walking in a Jewish neighborhood? You don’t know? I’ll tell you. You’ll get fat. (Pause) You’ll get fat. Think about it. Some Jewish yochner sees you walking around for more than a minute, and her head is out the door. ‘What, you want to get overheated, doing so much exercise outside on a day like this? You live around here? Get off your feet. Come in. You can watch a game with my husband, Heshie. It’s in color. We have the air conditioning. And you’ll eat. When’s the last time you ate?  I have three kinds of fish, seven kinds of cheese, two kinds of olives, every cold cut you can name, some brisket and stuffed cabbage from Shabbas, some seltzer, and tomatoes and onions my Heshie bought fresh from a farm yesterday. No? You’re not hungry? Who ever heard of such a thing?  So be a genius with your fresh air. Stay outside and get a rash and starve. And when you do, don’t come crying to me.'” Nah!

OK, one more. This one from Nichols and May.

May, with a purry voice, plays the salesperson at a funeral home. Nichols, her customer, tells her he wants his father buried with dignity, but he is not wealthy and doesn’t want to pay more than he can reasonably afford. May assures him she can accommodate him with a price that will suit his budget and keep his yenta relatives from gossiping about what a cheap son he is. “I have several memorial plans. They start at $200. I know that might be steep. (This is 1963.) But I also have plans for $50, $25, and even $10.” Nichols asks May to describe what some of the lower prices buy. She does so, and he makes a choice, the $50 funeral, but then says, “I would never do this in a million years. Not to my father. But I am curious and have to ask. What exactly do you get for $10?” “You’re inquiring about our $10 funeral?,” May says, milking the gag. “Yes. Heaven help me for asking, but I’m dying to know. What do you get for $10?” “Well, sir, since you asked,  for $10 we hire a body snatcher and take your loved one God knows where.” Nichols feigns horror.  Rimshot. Blackout. CueSteve Allen’s theme music.

1812’s subscription season continues in April with the annual production of “This Is the Week That Is.” In May, Jen Childs and Mary Martello (about to open in the Walnut’s “Arsenic and Old Lace”) reprise their tribute to Phyllis Diller. (I am a high brow. Hell, yes!)

DOUG ELKINS AT DANCE CELEBRATION

A personal aside. For almost three years, between the time my mother became terminally ill until the time my father died in 2013, I suspended by lifelong habit of spending almost every night being entertained by a performer or ensemble appearing live and in person.  I saw a relative handful of shows and stayed home to keep my parents company and to hear stories I was too busy to attend to in my former whirlwind life. Two weeks after my father passed, I went back to the theater regularly. But I didn’t return to dance and music events. Don’t ask why. There’s no real or logical answer. Maybe I just got out of a habit of taking in all of the arts.

Last week, I saw Doug Elkins was bringing his dance company to The Annenberg Center. Dance Celebration, a program produced by Dance Affliates artistic director Randy Swartz, had been one of my favorites. Swartz has  a great eye for what entertains, and a keen interest in dance. He would bring a variety of exciting ensembles to Annenberg, and I decided it was time to return to the audience Swartz and the Annenberg had cultivated for what I calculate to be almost 30 years.

I saw what I was missing and like Dolly Gallagher Levi, I am never letting another parade go by without me in the stands.

Elkins’s dances, created, the program says, in collaboration with his dancers, were exhilarating, the perfect tonic to a winter that meant days indoors, lots of cleaning of cars, and shoveling heaps of snow. They were bright and cheering, full of wit and energy. Dance Celebration is such a boon, such a wonderful program, what was I thinking by waiting a year to return to its midst?

The wrong thoughts is the answer to that one.

“Hapless Bizarre” starts with a man doing the old gag of trying to pick up a hat that always eludes him. One minute he kicks it, then it rolls away from it, then someone else picks it up. In all cases, the man is without a chapeau.

Elkins and troupe build on the calamity of the person who is never in synch with the group. As “Hapless Bizarre” proceeds, one clever and lively bit of business follows another with the dancing being quick and lithe and energizing. The joy and humor in the piece was contagious. I found myself at intermission gabbling a mile a minute about how dumb I was not to look up Swartz’s schedule a year earlier. Once upon a time, I teased I spent so much time at the Annenberg, they ought to charge me rent. Now I have to make sure it and Dance Celebration is on my agenda.

The second piece on Elkins’s program of extended dances is “Mo(or)town/Redux,” a presentation of “Othello” to Motown tunes and similar music.

Dance superseded the story, as  Alexander Dones, Cori Marquis, Kyle Marshall, and Donnell Oakley performed expressively in a variety of styles.

Rather than tell the “Othello” tale as Shakespeare did, Elkins keeps his cast to The Moor, Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia who dance in different combinations  but always in harmony until Marshall’s Iago takes a moment to whisper something of importance in Dones’s ear as Othello. The main prop is the handkerchief Othello prominently confers upon Desdemona as gift. Somehow this comes into the possession of Iago who uses it to goad Othello to jealousy and murder.

My one criticism of Elkins’s dance is the handkerchief was too plain. It looked like one from the continual six-packs of  simple white hankies I buy with regularity because I’m always losing them or handing a clean one to someone who needs it more than my pocket does.

Shakespeare describes Desdemona’s handkerchief as being embroidered with a strawberry design. Elkins would be wise to make the handkerchief in his piece equally distinctive. How else does Othello tell his gift from another plain white hankie?

The cavil aside, the Motown sound drives Elkins’s dance. One is shocked with Othello begins to scold and strangle Desdemona, not because the audience is not familiar with the story, but because the change is sudden, even after you see Iago’s whisper and witness him showing Othello the damaging handkerchief.

Emotion does not take full purchase, but the beauty and liveliness in some of the dances entertains and is fulfilling in its own right.

Justin Levine and Matt Stine were clever in mixing the accompanying score. I especially liked it when they blended three different tunes in one riff, so you heard the intro to one song, the vamp from another, and the rhythm from a third, all recognizable but exhilarating put together to create something new and appropriate to Mo(or)town/Redux.”

Dance Celebration continues its season from April 3 to 5 with Bodytraffic,  an L.A. troupe that has been called “the company of the future” in its Philadelphia review. The 2013-14 schedule ends with a visit from May 8 to 11 by the always welcome Momix, one of the most innovative and exciting of all American dance ensembles. Please call 215-898-3900 for information about these shows. Tickets, starting at $20, are available at the same number.

MACBETH AT TEMPLE UNIVERSITY

Of the three “Macbeths” I’ve seen this season, by far the most satisfying was Dan Kern’s production for Temple Theaters.

Kern’s staging was not as bravura or evocative as Jack O’Brien’s for Lincoln Center. Nor was it as thematic as Dan Hodge’s production at Hedgerow. It trumped both by being straightforward and by concentrating on the individuals of the Scottish court. The politics were apparent by the clarity with which all the characters spoke about them. Kern triumphed by staying elemental and true to storytelling instead of getting fancy or trying to impose a concept on either Shakespeare or “Macbeth.”

I was late catching up to Kern’s production because I hadn’t paid much attention to my alma mater’s season, had no idea who to call to arrange a visit to Temple, and was, frankly, not too enthusiastic about seeing another “Macbeth.”

My appetite became whetted when I noticed that the Temple graduate students playing the lead roles were Charlie  DelMarcelle, who garnered the 2013 Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award for his performance in Theatre Horizon’s “I Am My Own Wife,” and Leah Walton, who was touchingly kooky as Gilda Radner in 1812’s “Bunny Bunny” and who also placed on the PTCA roster of Best Performances.

My appetite went rewarded. DelMarcelle matched Kern’s staging by remaining basic in his approach to Shakespeare’s material. He was particularly convincing in conveying his reluctance to carry out his and Lady M.’s slaughter of Duncan, Scotland’s king, to wrest the crown from the reigning monarch and his appointed heir.

Kern, DelMarcelle, and Walton also did the best of any production with the banquet scene in which Macbeth is distracted by the recently killed Banquo’s appearance as a guest. The scene felt as if one was at a gathering, and Macbeth’s behavior, while bizarre, seemed plausible while Walton and the Temple cast maintained the right level of conversation and conviviality for the occasion.

Walton was fine throughout but excelled in later scenes, particularly the famous sleepwalking scene.  In this sequence, Walton elicited pity even though in Temple’s production, Lady M. is clearly the main instigator and motivating force behind her husband’s ingratitude and treachery.

The outstanding performance in Temple’s Macbeth came from a Kern other than Dan. James Kern is one of the most defined and commanding Malcolms I’ve ever seen in a production, and I’ve seen dozens of “Macbeths.”

Kern was so sincere as Malcolm. He is brilliant in the scene in which he purposely tries the patience of Macduff to test the latter’s loyalty and resolve to see him invested as Scotland’s king if Macbeth can be disposed of.

Other fine performances at Temple were by Robert Jason Jackson, a regal and amiable Duncan, Anna Flynn-Meketon as Banquo, Isabella Fehlandt as Lady Macduff, Kathy La as the Macduffs’ son, and Angela Fennell as Ross.

PORGY AND BESS ON TOUR

When “Porgy and Bess” returned to Broadway in 2012, acting made the difference in a production that was well sung and well directed but derived its strength from the fiery-then-sweet performance of the world’s current best entertainer, Audra McDonald, as Bess, the congenial evil of David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, the earthiness of NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, the empathy due Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, the fierceness of Phillip Boykin as Crown, and the sincere goodness of Norm Lewis as Porgy. Their portrayals enhanced a controversial staging by making Charleston’s Catfish Row more realistic and filled with people who rated our interested.

The touring production of “Porgy and Bess” that came to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in February seemed to cast more for singing than for acting. It looked and felt like a piece of theater rather than a world where actual people worked, struggled, laughed, and breathed. Instead of an intense and dramatic mise en scene, we got a mild staging, a piece that lacked the rawness, the power, and the reality of the Broadway run.

The production had its merits. It told DuBose Heyward’s story, as reworked by Suzan-Lori Parks, well enough, but it lacked texture and heft. It was museum theater instead of gutsy naturalistic theater.  I wasn’t disappointed as much as perplexed about why director Diane Paulus could not muster her touring cast to be as visceral and realistic as the Broadway troupe. Yes, I know McDonald, Grier, and Lewis are performers with special gifts, but the “Porgy and Bess” that came through Philadelphia smacked of being deemed all right for the road now that the original cast conquered New York.

Good performances were found among the touring company’s cast, but few led to the pulsating sense of both community and danger that pervaded New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Best among the touring troupe is Alvin Crawford whose Crown conveys size, muscle, anger, and both the desire and ability to do harm if he is crossed. Crawford is built so firmly and conducts himself so masculinely, you can see how Bess can be lured to his side and to crave his lovemaking. Crawford exudes sexuality as much he displays meanness. His was the only performance on a par with his New York counterpart, Boykin.

Also outstanding was Danielle Lee Greaves as a Mariah who could be maternal and leaderlike one minute and strict and intimidating the next. Greaves gave humor and depth to the company.

As Bess, Alicia Hall-Moran seemed more comfortable with scenes in which Bess is accepted by Catfish Row’s women and living in relative peace, as a reformed woman, with Porgy.

Hall-Moran grows into her character. In the early scenes, in which Bess is the gal who likes nightlife and knows how to handle herself with Crown and Sportin’ Life, the actress seems too hard-bitten and used. She seems to be trying too intently to convey a fallen woman. She relaxes more when Bess is better liked. In general, Hall-Moran’s performance was fine but without the majesty to make you love and care about her Bess like you did for McDonald’s.

Nathaniel Stampley made a likeable, believable Porgy. He was easygoing enough for you to believe the nothing he has plenty of is plenty for him. Stampley shows honesty in his affection for Bess.

Like Crawford, Kingsley Leggs brings professional dimension to his performance as Sportin’ Life.

The quality of “Porgy and Bess” and the rudiments of Paulus’s staging carry this production through. Hall-Moran helps by garnering more confidence and even looking prettier as her performance evolves in the second act.

I mentioned the touring cast seemed to be chosen for its singing ability, so you can expect some lovely harmonies in ensemble numbers. Ironically, solos, though sung well technically, lack dramatic shading and sound lovely but have insufficient impact. “Summertime” just happens when it should stun you to attention and prime you for the show to come.

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