The Welsh circus comes to Brooklyn.
A futuristic circus tent was recently erected beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Or did it land there? Vaguely resembling a flying saucer, it beckons audiences to its mystery. No, it isn't full of Martians but of performers from the Welsh circus NoFit State. St. Ann's Warehouse is hosting the troupe's latest show, Bianco. While it has all the elements of a truly unique circus experience, a series of misfires and oversights leaves us feeling unsatisfied.
This is despite a strong first impression: Door attendants wear leather kilts and exaggerated mustaches like revelers at an elaborately themed circuit party. We explore the darkened space as performers with indistinct European accents wander around sporting large roller bags and goofy expressions. This uncommonly theatrical beginning cedes to a fairly standard showcase of aerialist spectacle set to cool original music. It's like a budget version of Cirque du Soleil.
That's not to say that the acts aren't amazing. Lyndall Merry and Anne-Fay Johnston begin the show on a strong note, swinging above the audience in their tandem trapeze routine. Fred Rendell is intense and focused on the Cyr wheel surrounded by women in white who fly up and down using a counterweight pulley system. The results are awe-inspiring.
The second half of the show is better than the first. The full ensemble jumps around a giant jungle gym in a routine meant to evoke a busy swimming pool. Delia Ceruti and Joachim Aussibal astound as they climb around on the ropes like spider-people. Angelique Ross is grace personified in her dance trapeze act: Artificial snow falls around her as she glides through the air with unflinching elegance. Adam Cobley's ethereal lighting makes this moment even more startlingly beautiful than it already is.
Unfortunately, many of the routines feel quite short compared to the considerable transition time. Though technicians and performers scramble to furiously change the set between acts, there's still a lot of downtime. These moments, however, actually become spectacles unto themselves: A hanging scaffold comes down from the ceiling in under a minute while tightrope wire is suspended between towers. If these were the stagehand Olympics, NoFit State would receive the gold medal.
One wonders what director Firenza Guidi could have done with this speedy and competent ensemble were they not so preoccupied assembling and striking Merry and Saz Moir's complicated erector set. They try to distract us by running around and shouting, attempting to create a general sense of pandemonium. These moments are more awkward than not, compounded by the fact that we are on our feet for the entire two hours of the production.
NoFit State describes Bianco as an "immersive promenade," but the experience is more akin to a ride on the L train than to a stroll on the boardwalk. We jostle one another as attendants frantically direct the audience back and forth and side to side between acts. There's always going to be some gawkiness with an audience on its feet, but productions like Here Lies Love and Fuerza Bruta have shown that it can be handled in a far smoother way that incorporates the crowd into the storytelling rather than treating us as a necessary inconvenience.
Perhaps we could have been taken into the world of the story in these moments of transition. The show program claims that Bianco is inspired by The Elephant's Journey by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, but I honestly couldn't tell you anything about that novel from what I saw under the big top. The performers often talk to the audience as they're flipping around on a wire or swinging from a trapeze, but since they are unamplified, it is difficult to hear what they are saying.
Thankfully, music director David Murray gives us something exciting to hear in lieu of speech. The live band bridges the considerable divide between Algerian raï, Balkan brass, and Jamaican ska, playing continuously. Lead singer Andy Moore really wows us by switching between the guitar and trumpet. Occasionally, the acrobats and fire-eaters of the ensemble join in to form a chorus.
That turns out to be the most impressive aspect of Bianco: It may not be the greatest show on earth, but you have to admire the scrappy resourcefulness of its young performers.