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Be a Clean, Cool, Clever Clown

Feld Entertainment's Kaleidoscape Escapes the Circus Blues.

By Chicago
Circuses don't normally come this clean. You'll find no asphyxiating aroma of sawdust here, no lingering scent of elephant dung. Sure, there's popcorn, pizza, and cotton candy around; but the popcorn is of the gourmet caramel variety, the pizzas come with sun-dried tomatoes at eight dollars a pop, and the cotton candy is displayed inside the hermetic seal of plastic wrap.

Sneak behind the tents and around the Feld Entertainment trailers in the Soldier Field parking lot during the off hours when Barnum's Kaleidoscape is not performing and you might find yourself in the food service tent, where specials of the day include shrimp marinara and tomato-basil fettuccine. You won't find any performers here, though. They're all staying in town, just off the Magnificent Mile, in an extended-stay hotel. The only sign of life back here is a young urchin tooling around on an old Huffy bike, in search of a monkey named Happy. But there are no monkeys to be seen in this circus that boasts precious few animal acts.

It seems appropriate that the first act of this pristine, one-ring circus begins with a waif-like clown named Fanny sprucing up spectators with a feather duster, while another clown instructs yet another on the proper, gentlemanly way to greet a lady. As Act II begins, the clowns are sweeping up the stage so that nary a speck of lint will be seen by the spectators, who lounge upon chairs and sofas topped with red velvet. There is no sawdust to be seen on Kaleidoscape's hardwood floors! In one of the show's final sequences--a breathtaking number wherein the crossbow-wielding Guy Tell fires arrows through a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption and ultimately spears an apple atop his partner Regina Bouglione's head--there's Fanny again, this time with a squeegee, wiping off the plexiglass that protects the audience from potentially errant Tell arrows.

Everything in this show has been carefully plotted and scripted. That goes double for the lemonade, which the production's managing director, Jim Ragona, tests every morning. "It needs to be the proper Kaleidoscape sweetness, and that proper Kaleidoscape sweetness is in my mouth," he says. Ditto for the aroma of the production, a vaguely orange scent that is pumped into the tent during intermission. It even goes for the taste of the cotton candy and, as Ragona puts it, "the amiability of the bathrooms"--which, like the rest of the show, are immaculate.

"Everything about this facility is different," Ragona says of Kaleidoscape, offering that, in a typical circus, performers "dig a hole some place" and you "have to find your own place to relieve yourself. I like clean. I'm into clean. Clean is good."


If clean is good, then the anal-retentive Kaleidoscape circus is no doubt the best in the world. And clean does have its advantages. If one is to employ the cliché of circus as metaphor for life, popularized in many a Federico Fellini film, then entering the Kaleidoscape tent is like being born into a kinder, friendlier, near-perfect world. One enters the main tent--cream-colored, adorned with red, pale yellow, and aquamarine flags fluttering against a perfect blue sky, and capped by a red, unmistakably nipple-like peak--through a yawning "O" in a giant Kaleidoscape sign. Before stepping through a long, dark tunnel into the main theater, the audience is treated to an extensive pre-show in which the show's jugglers, clowns, musicians, tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, and contortionists circulate among the gourmet pizza-eating, Seattle's Best Coffee-quaffing spectators.

Kaleidoscape is the latest brainchild of Kenneth Feld of Feld Entertainment--which, in addition, to being the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is also responsible for such productions as Disney on Ice, The Wizard of Oz on Ice, Anastasia on Ice, Grease on Ice, and Siegfried and Roy--not yet on ice, but at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The show, which is currently on tour throughout America, marks the first time that Ringling Bros. has performed in a tent since 1956. It's a great improvement over the company's penchant for three ring circuses performed in faceless, cavernous basketball and hockey arenas.

Though many of Kaleidoscape's performers and producers bristle at even the mention of Cirque Du Soleil, it seems clear that their production is a direct response to that Canada-based circus--which, like Kaleidoscape, is more of a cohesive theatrical experience than your garden-variety extravaganza. Both have taken steps to cleanse, idealize, and aestheticize the art form. This movement has also been seen in cinema, most notably in the Wim Wenders films Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! and Patricia Rozema's When Night Is Falling, all of which posited the circus as an otherworldly, almost-divine experience.

Unlike Cirque du Soleil, Kaleidoscape does have a couple of animal acts: eerie, possessed white stallions who respond to the whispers of aerialist/animal trainer Sylvia Zerbini, and a family of performing geese trained by the daffy, Mother Goose-like Olga Rogacheva. Its musical score is more of a pastiche of American, traditional circus and rock 'n' roll styles than a New-Age, cinematic soundscape.

Another thing Kaleidoscape offers that Cirque du Soleil doesn't is intimacy and personal interaction; its Irish Spring-scrubbed and Pepsodent-brushed performers meet and greet the audience before the show begins and, after it ends, they all stand in a circle and offer autographs to their new fans. The experience is happily surprising for people like Linda Hudes, the composer and pianist for Kaleidoscape, whose earliest memories of the circus are that "It was not beautiful. I didn't see any beauty there. It was too loud and the clowns scared me."


Kaleidoscape should put an end to such nightmares. The clowns here are a far cry from the creepy staples of Z-grade serial killer films or dumbed-down children's entertainers like Ronald McDonald or Bozo The Clown (Jim Ragona refers to these Americanized renditions of the art of clowning as "cheese clowns."). Like the rest of Kaleidoscape's performers, the clowns here are supremely approachable--particularly the show's de facto host, David Larible, who galumphs about the stage in his oversized pants and shoes and big red nose, selecting audience members of all ages to join him onstage. Audiences do not cower in fright at this clown's approach; they clamber toward him, arms outstretched, gleefully pleading to be chosen. The highlight of Larible's antics comes when three spectators are chosen to play in a hysterical, lip-synched opera buffa.

There is skill and awe aplenty in the two hour-plus show, which offers a dazzling array of top-notch big-top acts. From Sylvia Zerbini's heart-stopping trapeze act to Alexander Petrov and Ludmila Kirilova's awe-inspiring tightrope and balancing act to Madrid-born "Picasso Jr," a virtuoso plate-thrower and juggler, this is a consistently entertaining and stunning theatrical experience. And whether the Golden Statues--three gold-painted, Moroccan-born contortionists and acrobats who perform on a cauldron adorned with golden snakes--remind you of a Duesenberg hood ornament, a Leni Riefenstahl photograph, or a prop from Aerosmith's "Nine Lives" tour, their strength and flexibility is nothing short of astounding.

The only downside to all of this is the fact that the show leaves one with a sense of loss, of nostalgia for the days when the circus seemed less a calculated, corporate conceit and more a mysterious, creepy, odorous purgatory of shadowy carnies born in trunks, living out of suitcases rather than nice hotels. The show recalls other forms of entertainment that have gone clean and corporate: old-time, second-run cinemas replaced by faceless multiplexes, bohemian coffeehouses replaced by Starbucks with piped-in, pre-programmed world music. The fear and mystery of the circus has been replaced by something that is almost too perfect, even if it is no less joyous.

"This is a very elegant, high-scale, luxurious show," says Jeske the clown. "(When) you go to a mud circus, there's a certain romance there. You have the smell of the hay, the smell of the mud. When you're inside the tent, it's kind of musty. That requires more of a circus fan. With this show, we're trying to broaden the audience. The circus has the ability to take your heart out, throw it on the ground, stamp on it, chew it up, and throw it back at you."

Ironically, the most wondrous and gorgeous moment of Kaleidoscape comes at the very end of the show, when all of the performers have gathered on-stage for the finale. The archer Guy Tell aims his crossbow at a white balloon at the top of the tent. When the arrow strikes the balloon, colorful confetti and streamers rain down upon the audience. At this moment, children rush the stage, gathering streamers and colored paper in their hands and ecstatically throwing themselves about, dancing and hurling confetti. They are thankful, one may presume, for a bit of old-fashioned mess and mayhem in an otherwise clean and perfect show.

Adam Langer is a journalist, author, and playwright whose work has been produced in numerous theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut. He has authored the films The Blank Page (distributed by 50th Street Films) and The Critics. He is a staff critic at the Chicago Reader and the associate editor of Book Magazine.


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