Looking Back at 1903
By Marcina Zaccaria
With bicyclists, jugglers, aerialists, and a skilled contortionist, Circus 1903 takes itself quite seriously. Evoking the Golden Age of Circus, the two hour spectacle leaves the audience captivated by images of strength, grace, and beauty.
Circus 1903 begins with purple fog and blue haze. An affable, capable Ringmaster welcomes attendees. This circus begins with a rustic look, and a muscular feel; it presents as a bare bones, working man’s circus. Performers are dressed in tan. They handle mallets, pull rope, and bang on cans. After they prove their might, bouncing and flipping from a teeter-totter, the audience is slowly introduced to a Side Show. It is a place for stilt walkers, a strong man, a serpent, and finally, a contortionist.
But, is it a play or a circus? It’s a world where time matters. Announcing circus artists from Belarus, Paris, and Africa, it’s actually a careful smattering of performance from The Great Gaston, storytelling from Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, and a jaw-dropping high wire act from Los Lopez. Though there are vignettes drawing our attention to “astonishing and inspiring” showmanship (and other virtues of performance), it’s not a plot driven spectacle.
In the arena complete with vendors selling popcorn and cotton candy in the aisles, each act reaffirms our sense that the circus has persisted, and remains through time. Act One feels like more of a backyard outside an industrial center – a rehearsal set outside of a railway station. Act Two brings all of the hoopla to the stage, with bright colors, a spectacular red backdrop with black stars, and attention drawn to tall pillars that are essential to the high wire act. Live accordion is accompanied by snare drum, brass, and woodwinds. It’s refreshing.
The feats of balance are supported by recorded sound tracks. It’s beautifully synthesized music, loud enough to keep the audience engaged, but smooth enough not to rock a Big Top. Perhaps the most joyous element is the presentation of the finely crafted elephants. The largest elephant, presented by the puppeteers from War Horse, gives every sense of scale. Graceful and majestic, Queenie appears next to a baby elephant. It makes for quite a show.
Other highlights include an aerial act from Lucky Moon, a complicated sequence from the Cycling Cyclone, and a Ringmaster’s presentation, with children pulled from the audience. The circus triumphantly ends with a team of three balancing on a bicycle from a high wire. They take advantage of fast-paced music with agility and a sense of bravura. Dancing in ruffled red clothes, they leave the spectators in awe. It is a true crowd pleaser.
Although performers are only in the aisle for a moment, it’s great to see their parade of many colors expand into the audience. At Madison Square Garden, where we’re so accustomed to taking in a rock concert or a ball game, the old-fashioned Circus 1903 is a sight worth seeing.
Tickets are on sale now at www.theateratmsg.com/circus1903 – thru April 16
Photos: Scott Levy