BWW Reviews: Trouble Puppet's CRUEL CIRCUS is Cruelly Entertaining

By: May. 18, 2013
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Hurry, hurry! Step right up! The circus has come to Austin, and it's not to be missed. Filled with imagination, whimsy, and charm, The Cruel Circus, now playing the Salvage Vanguard Theatre thru May 25th, is an absolute delight and a feast for the eyes.

The original play, written and directed by Connor Hopkins, follows a ragtag group of circus performers who were created by a mysterious tinkerer. Some of the tinkerer's creations are perfectly formed while others are oddities and inept. The newly created Bella is immediately rejected by the tinkerer and tossed to the floor below. Knowing only that she fell from the sky, Bella goes on a quest to find where she came from and to discover her purpose. Her quest eventually leads her to the tinkerer's finer creations, a group of circus performers who live for the stage.

Though Hopkins's script drips with metaphors and allegories about the creation of man, those thoughts remain in the subtext, allowing the personality of his characters to take center stage. The puppets, controlled by eight talented but "invisible" performers, are marvelously detailed and exquisitely made. Designed by Hopkins as well, each puppet has a unique look and a specific movement quality, though their blue tinted skin and a few other features make it clear that they're all part of the same family and story. From the cranky janitor to the arrogant lion tamer to the friendly and charismatic clowns, each character has personality to spare and is thoroughly engaging.

While the bizarre cast of characters sets the tone, the world they inhabit completes it. Stephen Pruitt's lighting is colorful and vibrant and the puppet costumes by Monica Gibson and Lucie Cunningham are wonderfully crafted and adorned with plenty of circus-like embellishments. The choice to use projections by Chris Owen and Annie Bradley McCall to occasionally turn Hopkins's puppet theater/circus tent set into a filthy workshop floor is a smart and interesting one, and Justin Sherburn's fantastic original score takes traditional circus oom-paa-paa and gives it a bit of Danny Elfman and Tom Waits flare.

As he serves as author, set designer, puppet designer, and director, the mind often goes back to Connor Hopkins and his numerous contributions to the work. While it's rare that an artist can wear so many hats with equal success, Hopkins does so with ease. As mentioned, his writing and design work is astonishing, and his direction is as well. Hopkins's direction has a twisted but humorous Tim Burton-esque quality to it which works in perfect synchronicity with his text and quirky characters. His decision to kick off the evening with a 20 minute pre-show featuring Cami Alys as a gritty, emotional, but darkly humorous singer who belts out songs as she plays the ukulele and a children's piano is an inspired one. As soon as Alys takes the stage, you know you're in for a strange but entertaining evening of theater.

With its peculiar characters and clear but unexpected and strange vision, The Cruel Circus is highly amusing and captivating from beginning to end. This circus is three rings of fun.

Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

THE CRUEL CIRCUS, produced by Trouble Puppet Theater Company, plays the Salvage Vanguard Theatre at 2803 East Manor Road, Austin 78722, now thru Saturday, May 25th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 6pm. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 student/senior.

For tickets and information, visit


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