BWW Review: ETHEL Captures the Spirit of Circus Through Soaring Strings at BAM Harvey Theater
The art of circus acts are ancient -- spanning back thousands of years across cultures and kingdoms. And, in January 2018, the modern circus that has become a part of the cultural landscape, celebrated its 250th birthday. Contemporary circus (most famously Montreal's Cirque du Soleil, though there are numerous other notables, including Australia's Circa and Sweden's Cirkus Cirkor -- both who performed in this year's Next Wave Festival at BAM) continues to thrive with the vision of uplifting the art form to the realms of high art opposed to being perceived as mere lowbrow entertainment.
But last year, in 2017, the most well-known traveling circus for the better part of two centuries and the brand synonymous with the word, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth" -- took down their tents for good and bowed to the crowds for the very last time after nearly 150 years of entertainment and enchantment (though not without a good dose of controversy throughout). This marked the end of an era for the traditional circus most people associate with the craft: clowns, acrobats, acts of daring, death-defying stunts and exotic animals all under a traveling tent. That same year, the film The Greatest Showman shined a different sort of spotlight on this kind of circus' iconic, larger-than-life creator -- P.T. Barnum -- by giving his life story the theatrical musical treatment worthy of Broadway but delivered on the big screen instead of the Big Top or Great White Way.
In celebration of these various landmarks in the history of circus, as well as their own 20th anniversary season, the adventurous string quartet (whose musicianship could be described as a sonic equivalent to acrobatics and tightrope tricks) ETHEL presents Circus: Wandering City, a musical and multimedia journey offering a more intimate exploration and tender tribute to the tradition of the traveling troupes and the audiences who adored them. Drawing from a goldmine of materials from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art including: photos, interviews and film clips they create a visual history that compliments the musical accompaniment.
Like many circuses, it begins with a clown. But this clown was no red-nosed character in squeaky shoes, it was none other than ETHEL's own Corin Lee, tripping over his sheet music and struggling with his music stand. This was the perfect occasion straight away to set a standard and correct common misunderstandings -- for the heart of a clown isn't in the makeup or outfits, it's the humor, outrageousness and ridiculousness found within all too human and relatable situations.
ETHEL is comprised of Ralph Farris (viola), Kip Jones (violin), Dorothy Lawson (cello) and Corin Lee (violin) but when they come together their strings of a feather breathe as one. Perhaps two decades together has birthed such camaraderie, consistency and maturity with a good dash of daring and rebellious nature present in any typical twenty year old. Their sense of playfulness (with each other and the audience) is alive and well, but only becomes profound when teamed with their remarkable discipline and skill. Much like the circus artists -- they merely make it look easy when it is anything but.
The performers are clad in vaudevillian, slightly steampunk-inspired garb (costume design by Beth Goldenberg) mirroring both the vagabond, gypsy lifestyle of the traveling entertainer and matching the decrepit charm of BAM's Harvey Theater (Note to BAM: please -- never renovate or update -- you are glorious as you are!) which lent a hefty atmospheric hand.
The video and images projected (design by John Narun) onto the blank canvas are obscured, quite cleverly and poetically, by ropes (thank to set designer Jason Ardizzone-West) -- creating a textured abstraction and evoking the various "rope acts" in a circus - tightropes, aerial acrobatics and even pulling up the tents. The video montages with excerpts of interviews from circus performers such as: La Norma Fox, Margie Geiger, Ward hall, Dolly Jacobs, Jackie LeClaire, Pedro Reis and Victoria Cristiani Rossi (who entered the circus at ten days old) was originally presented at The Ringling Museum (who co-commissioned the piece along with BAM) hosted by Dwight Currie as part of their "Collecting Recollections" series. It was quite remarkable to see and hear past circus stars who may or, more likely, may not have ever gotten any real recognition on a large scale, sharing their stories -- from the tales of aerial, tightrope or highwire terrors to the trunks of intelligent elephants of tails of tamed tigers.
But the real spectacle was the music and the musicians behind this masterful work. Not that you'd ever know or hear it from them. There is a superb humility and almost reverence from ETHEL based on the subjects they explore so deeply -- again -- breathing as one entity, to the point where their strings pull on one's own heart strings and stir emotions in such a way it is truly profound not in spite of but because of its subtlety. Never have four performers been so compelling and commanded the stage in such a way. (Well, maybe the Beatles, but ETHEL -- a contemporary string quartet -- has enjoyed a twenty-year run after all that commenced at the height of the boy and girl band craze).
Circus, particularly the kind associated with the now defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, may have been viewed at times as an unsophisticated over-the-top form of expression and entertainment, but this brilliant and beautiful exploration of Circus: Wandering City by ETHEL strips it all down to its most simple, sincere and human qualities (even when involving animals), perhaps asking audiences to view circus as something else that their initial perceptions -- but to regard it as a place where the denizens of society not only gathered but were welcomed, accepted and made to feel useful (many years before the theater industry implemented color or gender-blind casting or inclusion was taken seriously by employers). .
Whether it be through the history, narrative, drama, comedy or simply the score that soars as high as an aerialist or trapeze act -- the exquisite expression and masterful musicianship of the fantastic foursome of ETHEL certainly knows how to tug at one's heartstrings, again and again.
ETHEL quartet in Circus: Wandering City. Photo by Max Gordon.
ETHEL quartet in Circus: Wandering City. Photo by Max Gordon.
Kip Jones in Circus: Wandering City. Photo by Max Gordon.