Circus 1903: Step right up!

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls Circus 1903 is in town. And what a fine circus it is. Couched in the conceit of an old fashioned big top entertainment from the turn of the last century Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus is here to impress us with well-honed talent and a few new twists.

Before the curtain rises at the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul, Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) enters the audience wearing a bowler hat and bow tie with a tray full of red and white popcorn bags strapped around his neck. After a bit of business and a joke or two he tosses an overflowing bag of popcorn high over several rows of seats to boys hoping to snag some munchies. White kernels sprinkle heads of the audience while Ringmaster Whipsnade exclaims, “Of course I’ll toss it. It’s 1903 and this is the circus!”

When the curtain does rise, it’s on a stage that is set with trapeze stands, a circus wagon and performance paraphernalia dimly perceived through fog and hazy blue light. Wonders are to come but they will be revealed gradually.

It used to be that circuses would arrive on a train and parade their animals, acrobats and costumed sideshow performers through the streets as a tempting introduction to their show. In today’s version of the old entertainment, Circus 1903 opens on a gang of beefy men pretending to pound stakes into the ground as if to pitch their oversized tent. Soon a trio of men slip into their routine as acrobats on the teeterboard as if practicing for the real performance to come. These men, The Flying Fins (Artur Ivankovich, Petter Vastermark, Ilya Kotenyov) are masters of their craft. This is followed by a nearly impossible balancing act by The Sensational Sosonov (Mikhail Sosonov). After all this hard work the elephants poke their noses on stage for a drink of water and a scratch behind the ears. Mother and baby pachyderm are puppets, designed by the same team (Mervyn Millar/Tracy Waller of Significant Object) that produced the puppets for War Horse.

On it goes. The entire first act is stacked with expectation, as if it is a rehearsal for the real show which follows our intermission.

Highly skilled performers are the core of Circus 1903. But what makes the evening work so well is that producers Simon Painter and Tim Lawson and the troupe know how to use showmanship to balance two hours of entertainment. Physical feats are interspersed with pure comic schtick and an occasional visit by the elephants. Something like a big, high flying spectacle performed by Les Incredibles (Amy Laplante, Andrei Kalesnikau) to pulsing tango music is followed by quieter work like Lucky Moon (Elena Gatilova), a world champion rhythmic gymnast.

How this show is put together is its own kind of balancing act. There could have been a little more of a finale at the end but every showperson knows you leave them begging for more. Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus does that.

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