April 15, 2009

Circus, Circus!

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Sideshows possess an illicit allure, at once reassuring us of our own relative normalcy while also offering a glimpse of those border-states where our categories of the human and the natural break down. Although our urge to leer at others’ frailty and aberrations can often ironically transform ourselves into freaks, the circus can also be a carnival-esque celebration of unexpected diversity.
Willard Straight Memorial Room was transformed into a big-top Monday night for the Awkward Circus, complete with boxes of popcorn: in the center of a circle of chairs, a tent-pole supported a canopy of banners while a spotlight shone down on the center ring. What the show lacked in glitz, it made up for in guts: no Cirque du Soleil, the Awkward spectacle enchanted with homegrown amusements, which were all the more pleasing for their slight gawkiness.
The event began with the antics of Rachael Moxley ’09, as a bearded lady, and Jimmy Shi ’09, wearing a curly orange wig purportedly to masquerade as a “fat lady,” chasing each other around the seats. Moxley threw wadded-up paper balls while Shi galumphed around like a gilly-gaupus. Their amateurish pluck was endearing, setting a tone for the evening of childish glee. Then, swooshing into the ring, an assortment of jugglers (Evan Danaher grad, Olson Jaimes ’07, Rob Norback ’09 and Jon Billing) began tossing pins back and forth between each other, catching them behind their backs, or executing spin moves. Though there were a few bobbles and an occasional spill, their feats were nonetheless entertaining. One talented ball-juggler kept adding another and another: five, six at a time until they became a circle of dizzying blur.
Afterward, a bevy of all-female a cappella performers sauntered out, adorned in colorful tights and polka dot tops, to shimmy and sing Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Their outfits and accents of whiteface clown make-up gave their rendition a feel of being all the sexier for its slightly satiric edge. Next up, a dancer in a kiwi-like bird costume sewn out of burlap sacks (Jae Hee Lee ’12) skipped and wobbled in a forlorn yet whimsical dumbshow, as if yearning to fly.
Changing the mood once again, Linka Preus ’10 demonstrated her acrobatic skills, using her ankles alone to support Mary Margaret “Danger” Thomas ’10, who bent backwards above her until she pointed almost vertical. Later, Thomas provided a burlesque entre-act — the old hootchie-kootchy show of a carnival, seductively slinking out of her evening gown, fishnets, and long satin gloves down to pasties. The jugglers performed again along with Dasha Kalnistsky ’10 who navigated the narrow space on a unicycle. She rode backwards, did tricks off the seat and even skipped rope. Though Kalnistsky was genuinely impressive, the evening retained an air of being rough-around-the-edges with its vaudevillian boutades.
Andrei Abrahamian ’09 delighted in the mood of prankish bathos, playing an inept magician. Also living up to the awkward billing, Molly Chiang ’09 and Katie Kasabalis ’10 portrayed a pigeon-toed, knock-kneed horse lurching on its last leg before it got sent to the knacker. In an intriguing fantasia sequence, Aubrey Hetznecker ’10, dressed as a female Pierrot with a wide-mouthed smile and kewpie doll face, unveiled her pet beast, Max Davis ’10: an inexplicable hunching human oddity that had a metallic wing-like appendage. Throughout the show, fashion played as much a part of the spectacle as any other element, with pieces designed by Savinien Caracostea ’09, Wilma Lam ’10, Tammy Chuang ’10 and Jane Ahn ’09.
Other highlights of the night that roped the audience in were John Zissovici ’73 and Alex Mergold ’00, playing a sad clown and a fussy hair-brained professor, enacting a silent skit in which they attempted to connect but inevitably tied themselves in knots. A funky gambit enlivening between acts of pantomime, the female a capella singers came out for a second song, in which they performed a round with both beat-boxing and doo-wop.
The emphasis on mime and sartorial flamboyance gave the night a tone of sophisticated Frenchiness while the chintz and gaud of American hucksterism created un petite frisson. Elegance and shabbiness co-existed, as if one were “in” on a pointless joke — the circus being an excuse for a meta-theatrical shaggy dog. One enjoyed the evening in the way one could be aware of the moral duplicity of a P.T. Barnum hoax, yet willingly indulge in it anyway as an excuse to suspend disbelief.