Richard Saudek, the creator and performer of the one-man show, Beep Boop, is a self-confessed “idiot who likes to make faces at himself in the mirror.” If his program bio is to be believed, “when he was ten, he ran off to perform in the circus as a young clown, then left the circus at the age of sixteen to pursue other theatrical stuff, such as commedia dell’arte in Florence; improv in Chicago; stilt-walking in Shanghai; burlesque opposite Steve Buscemi; and has portrayed madmen and fools for over a decade all over NYC.” Whether Saudek’s resume is 100 percent accurate or not, one thing is certain: his kind of rigorous talent does not happen overnight.
Balls, an ambitious mashup of docudrama and satiric commentary, takes the Sept. 20, 1973, exhibition match between Wimbledon champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as a starting point for assessing social upheavals of the past 45 years. When Riggs challenged King to the match eventually dubbed the “battle of the sexes,” she was 29 years old. Riggs had won at Wimbledon four years before she was born. They squared off in front of more than 30,000 spectators in Houston’s Astrodome as millions more watched on television. Riggs lost in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and King walked away with the “winner take all” purse.
Circus has long been a beloved popular entertainment in the United States (and in many other places around the globe). From P.T. Barnum's early acts to New York's very own Big Apple Circus, a day at the big top brings up many different associations: balancing elephants, high-flying trapeze artists, the smell of peanuts and popcorn in the air. NoFit State Circus, a collective of circus performers from Wales, presents its own modern take on this classic performance form with its latest touring show, Bianco, pitching its tent just outside St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. .
Accented by über-hip (and sexy) costumes and energized live music, the performers take center stage with their various acts: tightrope, aerial hoops, juggling, handstands, trampolines, and more. In director Firenza Guidi's Bianco, audiences can expect thrilling tricks, silly laughs, and an ever-shifting performance space that will keep audiences literally on their feet.
Formed in 1986 during a time of economic recession, the NoFit collective travels, lives and creates art together. In such close quarters, it is inevitable that artists develop bonds with one another. The tight nature of the ensemble is made obvious by watching the performers, who communicate wordlessly and always seem to have one another’s backs. Even the music (directed by David Murray) is woven seamlessly into the fabric of the performance and may be Bianco’s greatest strength. Eerie at times and downright rock-and-roll at others, the music ebbs and flows to match the physical feats of the performers and create truly holistic moments of awe.
The entire ensemble of performers is talented and professional. Blaze Tarsha spins gorgeously through the air in her elegant aerial hoop work. Delia Ceruti presents a vision of surrealist beauty as she is showered with blood-red rose petals in a massive white drop-away skirt (designed by Rhiannon Matthews). Anne Fay-Johnston’s physical humor is irresistible in her impressive handstand routine. Overall, the cast not only performs awe-inspiring feats but looks like they are having a lot of fun in the process.
Even the weight-bearing act of suspending performers in the air appears fun and carefree, as Bianco employs a brilliantly rudimentary set of ropes and pulleys—exposing the usually invisible mechanism of suspension. Visible riggers climb and drop from scaffolded pillars to raise and lower the performers as they enact their tricks. Overall, this simple (and quite Brechtian) device creates a nostalgia for an era when “technology” meant ropes and pulleys, rather than modems and projections. Indeed, the abundance of rope in Bianco’s design aesthetic harks back to the days of Houdini and his sleight-of-hand magic. At every juncture, the ensemble seems to revel in their talent and flow..
Unfortunately, it is ever-so-slightly less fun to be an audience member at Bianco. The 6:30 p.m. audience consists mostly of families (hence the early start time) and young thrill-seeking city dwellers. Younger audiences certainly take great pleasure in NoFit’s impressive tricks and visuals; their awe is admittedly infectious. However, for spatially conscious adults, the area inside the dark big top may feel crowded and hectic, especially during Bianco’s many act transitions. Indeed, a certain anxiety may ensue as sandbag weights come whizzing down from the rafters and entire scaffolding systems are toppled over precariously to be reformulated for the next act. Meanwhile, the audience is constantly being barked at by ushers to make space, back up, or shuffle around. This shuffling detracts considerably from the experience, especially because the entire show is meant to be enjoyed while standing.
Of course, the whole point is that NoFit Circus seems to embrace a far more do-it-yourself aesthetic than Barnum & Bailey’s highly polished “Greatest Show on Earth.” This creates a certain feeling of being “backstage” at a ragtag circus, but it has its drawbacks during the hectic transitions. Expect to be entertained by the talented acrobats, designers, and musicians at NoFit State Circus’s Bianco, but also be prepared to do some fancy—and irritating—footwork of your own during the production’s many scenic transitions.
The Bianco tent will be across New Dock Street from the new St. Ann’s Warehouse (45 Water St., in DUMBO, Brooklyn) through May 29. Bianco runs at 7 p.m. May 17-20 and 24-27; at 6:30 p.m. May 14, 21 and 28; and at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. on May 15, 22 and 29. Running time is two hours, including an intermission. Tickets are $35-40 and may be purchased at www.stannswarehouse.org or by calling (718) 254-8779 or (866) 811-4111.
The thing most everyone loves about birds is their ability to fly, yet one of the first things we do is catch them and put them in a cage. The same can be said of love. Told without a single spoken word, Butterfly, currently at 59E59 Theaters, unwraps a story of a kite-maker who is courted by a customer but is smitten with a butterfly catcher. The hour-long production is rich with symbolism, European and Asian sensibilities, and movement choreographed to haunting original music.
Beautifully acted by Naomi Livingstone, Chris Alexander and Ramesh Meyyappan, who also created and directed the play, Butterfly opens with the three characters miming kite flying with synchronized, lyrical movement. Meyyappan, as the butterfly lover Nabokov, is the first to break off with hand motions of a butterfly fluttering around the stage. It becomes clear quickly that both the customer (Alexander) and the butterfly catcher are more than interested in the ubiquitous Butterfly (Livingstone.)
Alexander, as the customer, is charming in a boyish manner, always bringing Butterfly a wrapped gift when he comes to purchase kites. Butterfly flirts with him but is taken aback when he comes in close. It is Nabokov who steals her heart, much like he catches his butterflies. Excited that he is moving in with her, she changes and alters her behavior and routine to fit his mood. At first Butterfly is taken with his butterfly-net acumen, but she is horrified at watching the chloroform kill the butterfly so that Nabokov can mount his specimen.
The gift of a comb from the customer sets jealousy in motion. Butterfly is at the brunt of it as Nabokov aggressively combs her hair with the gift. In an effort to appease him, she attempts to return the comb to the customer. Filled with the rage of rejection, he forces himself on her. When Nabokov learns of this, he rejects her. The dramatic, wrenching scene is played out twice. It becomes evident that she is replaying the scene, much like anyone who has been the victim of violence replays the event over and over in his or her head. Her barely audible wailing is the closest thing to a spoken word.
What follows is a series of exquisitely portrayed events: a dream sequence using a doll in the likeness of Nabokov, the birth of her child employing bold and visual imagery, and the young child’s exploratory actions into the world through puppetry. With controls aptly handled by Alexander and Meyyappan, an inquisitive, lifelike cloth puppet makes its way around the stage, climbing onto a desk pulling pins from the butterfly shadowbox, finally tearing the butterfly in two. Butterfly’s rage sends him flying across the floor. Alexander and Meyyappan disappear as the puppeteers, much like those in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of War Horse, but their acting does not. They are the doll in the dream walking across the sleeping Butterfly; they also become the curious child making its way into a new world. Nothing else exists.
The haunting and expressive puppet and detailed dolls are attributed to the skillful Gavin Glover. Neil Warmington has developed a fluid set with three bakers’ racks on wheels, first creating the kite-makers’ workspace and later transforming it into their home and a workshop for Nabokov. Also credited with costuming, Warmington could have use a lighter touch with a softer-soled shoe. Lighting is limited and sketchy, and shadows, while important, left the actors in the dark too often. However, it is the inspiring original music by David Paul Jones, married to the choreography of Darren Brownlie, that is the undercurrent of Butterfly.
The word creative is particularly limiting if used to describe Meyyappan, especially given the way he sees and delivers life onto the stage, and Butterfly is more than the typical story of courting, lovers and jealousy. However, what becomes clear is that he is a master storyteller. Expressing all of these emotions while conveying complicated humans without words is what propels Butterfly to soar.
Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, Butterfly runs through May 14 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.