In good circus company

Scotch & Soda (Company 2)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 18 -28

Circus continues to represent an almost unstoppable trend, making it a challenge for productions to keep audiences intrigued and interested. Thankfully, shows like Company 2’s “Scotch & Soda” highlight the genre as more vibrant performance platform than fad amongst the traditionally conservative theatre scene.

It is clear from early in the show why the work was such a hit at last year’s Brisbane Festival, thanks to its delicious blend of vaudeville charm and physical feats. The music, which comes courtesy of Sydney’s The Crusty Suitcase Band, creates a fun feel to compliment the vintage sideshow-style staging (think travelling gypsies in a rowdy whiskey joint).

From the company of carnival men (and a couple of women) come all range of performance techniques, from the fearless to the dainty. Tricks include the usual fare, all doing justice to the resulting agape audience mouths, however, it is when movement is taken from the ground to the air, that collective gasps and looks away (#inagoodway) abound, particularly in response to the aerial work of acrobat Mozes. Director Chelsea McGuffin is also particularly impressive, especially when walking across a path of different sized bottles. From skating on clogs to bike trickery to the blast of a mini drum set’s beat, “Scotch & Soda” is ever the eclectic mix of entertainment. And even when a dog appears as part of the act, in typical Company 2 style it never verges of gimmickry.

Scotch and Soda

Sometimes the simplest of things can be funny, like a performer meandering about pre-show randomly calling out for Mary before some dialogue begins with the question in everyone’s mind…. “who’s Mary?” And sometimes the simplest of circus moves can be the most powerful like balancing atop a trapeze without using hands. And, with perfect balance of both of these aspects “Scotch & Soda” is a sure-fire hit.

The acrobats of the Company 2 ensemble are cohesive not only in their precision timing and showcase of circus skill strength, but in their energy and sense of humour. Indeed, the ragtime band of cheeky ragamuffins are at once both highly-skilled and expressive to always engage the audience, whether it be to spontaneous applauses or intense, focussed silence.

“Scotch & Soda” is a quirky show (at one point we see a man marrying a double bass) but it is a glorious type of quirk, complete even with nudity and jaw dropping physical feats to toe-tapping jazz beats. Like its high-ball cocktail namesake, its perfection comes from the combination of its ingredients. And with its mix of simple storytelling and acoustic instrumentation, Company 2’s “Scotch & Soda” is vibrant with passion, making it accessible beyond traditional circus expectations.

Circus and then some

Sediment (Company 2)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 4 – 8

Artistic and real-life partners David Carberry and Chelsea McGuffin are back at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, joining forces with their “Scotch and Soda” collaborator, renowned percussionist and composer Ben Walsh, to present the world premiere of a new production to carry your imagination away. “Sentiment” is a layered work that blends circus, dance and live music into a beguiling artistic mix that will linger with you long after show’s end.

bottes

The power of circus is that it can be anything based on movement, strength and discipline. And “Sentiment” is certainly an example of this in its bottle walking balances, lifts and aerial work. Even though there is a touch of vaudeville when McGuffin saws herself in half, the world into which the audience is invited is framed with a dark aesthetic, fitting given that the production takes inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s brooding 1864 novella, “Notes From Underground”, a work of realist fiction which ponders the pleasure of despair, as perhaps only a Russian writer can.

shadow

The set creates has some breathtaking moments, such as when McGuffin’s giant dancing silhouette is shadowed across the stage. And while there is a busyness to the staging, it is still somewhat intimate in its examination of human nature, with a front of stage, retro television set screening essential questions and ponderings such as ‘how honest are you?’ Lighting also adds to the mood of each of its many scenes.

Although the production features a small performance space and only three performers throughout, it is a busy stage with all sections being used, albeit not simultaneously. However, the versatility of the dancers makes you long to see them in a more open space, as the confines of the front of stage area used for the early pair work scenes inhibit complete viewing (and thus I imagine appreciation) from those audience member seated high in the stalls.

A highlight, is Walsh’s music making, from obscure instruments like a theremin and sound sources such as a typewriter’s key tapping and makeshift glass harp. Indeed, the soundscape as a whole is entirely impressive in its inventiveness, from tv static to sand on stage, the most obscure of sounds becomes a feature in itself, even down to the plainness of paper scrunching and pencil scratching.

“Sediment” is a mesmeric meditation, however, about what is up for conjecture, given its lack of dialogue or discernable dramatic structure. But maybe this is ok. Maybe the show is like the nature Dostoyevsky describes when he writes “Nature doesn’t ask your permission. … You’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well.”  For what is most powerful about productions such as “Sediment” is the realisation that words are not always necessary for much to be expressed.

The spectacle is in the subtlety

She Would Walk The Sky (Company 2)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

February 14 – 23

A quiet descends over the small Turbine Platform audience and those standing round its balconies as ‘she’ descends with baby bird hesitancy from the rafters into the carnival arena to the prose of award winning Australian playwright Finegan Kruckmeyer.  It is immediately clear that, in its world premiere season, Company 2’s “She Would Walk The Sky”, is a circus that is simultaneously nostalgic and surreal. There are the red and golds of ostentatious circus spectacle, but these are tempered with the faded hues of pastel shades and modest period costumes. It is a juxtaposition themed throughout the show with props ranging from gramophone to candelabra, tiny piano and a whole lot of rope.

by Sean Young - Brisbane Powerhouse pic

As explanation, a bumbling Svengaliesque clown introduces the ‘people of the real world’ audience to members of the circus family, a family whose members range from middle aged bellboy to traditional strong men (complete with handlebar moustaches). Together, the intriguing ensemble proceeds to bring the Turbine Platform space to life with their shows of strength and skill. Indeed, it is a visually poetic performance, often times subtle and quiet, as with white wing-line fan, ‘she’ shows how ‘birds are like clocks with feathers’, but also alive with energy of the performers’ daring feats, heightened in appeal by their proximity to the audience, their limbs luxuriating in the space, telling their fluid and expressive tales in acrobatic odyssey.

The show makes clever use of the unique Turbine Platform space, as should be expected given that the work was specially commissioned by the Brisbane Powerhouse for WTF 14. Unfortunately, on a hot summer night, the space is not that comfortable for the sardined audience members. The lighting too, is a disappointment as, rather than showcasing the depths of the space, it leaves the band hidden in the gothic shadows for most of the performance. And the live music is an important part of this eclectic theatre experience, with violin and cello concertos perfectly soundtracking the tightrope walkers and bicycle acrobatics. On the night I attended, audio problems too, tempered the quality, but our ‘host’ handled them with aplomb, adding to the comic repertoire of his engaging performance of physical comedy and endearing characterisation.

These concerns, however, all appear minor, in consideration of the show’s holistic appeal. The choreography is spectacular. From the freakish strong man body contortions to the poise and control of aerial performer Mozes, every trick is timed perfectly so as to astound child and adult alike. And it is in these quiet, controlled moments that “She Would Walk The Sky” artfully articulates its essence as a beautiful and inspiring show, not loud or brash, but just unassuming brilliance and stunning theatrical poeticism whose spectacle is in its subtlety.