Written and performed by Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet
Produced by STEREOPTIK
Off Off Broadway, Puppetry/Animation
Runs through 6.4.17
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue
by Ran Xia on 6.1.17
Scene from Dark Circus. Photo by © STEREOPTIK.
BOTTOM LINE: This virtuoso performance brings to life an enchanted circus and awakens distant dreams of childlike wonders, geared with manual cinema wizardry and a musical fantasia.
First it’s the sound of something mystical, a melody as if an echo through time. Then appear brushstrokes against a blank slate: a circus tent, the open field, the wide road extending till the horizon next to high rises, and wisps of clouds in the distance. Romain Bermond’s swift ink drawing, projected live, composes the backdrop of the story. A funky beat starts to resonate beneath the melody, and music bursts out of every inch of Jean-Baptistes Maillet’s body. Dark Circus takes my breath away within its first seconds.
It’s a fantastical circus troupe coming out of a Tim Burtonesque daydream. “Come for the show, stay for the woe,” is the motto of the titular grandeur, with its gloriously delightful yet charmingly morbid sensibility. It’s coming to town, says the Emcee, for one night only. Indeed you meet the Emcee first, who looks like a lost brother of Gomez Addams, and with the thickest French accent possible he begins to introduce each of the acts. First up is Anika, the nimble trapeze flyer who flips and twirls midair. All the actions are realized through carefully manipulated shadow puppetry and brilliantly rendered sand paintings. You're astonished by the beauty until the whimsy and romance turns into something catastrophic. The performer plunges to her doom.
Each act thus follows the pattern: the human cannonball is forever lost in space, the lion trainer gets devoured by the beast, the knife thrower plunges a dagger right through her partner’s heart, the equestrian gets thrown off the cliff. Each act is at once dazzling and ridiculous, accompanied by toe-tapping underscoring. For the majority of the show, the visual remains monochromatic, yet somehow the effects are lively and kaleidoscopic, and when, finally, a clownish juggler splashes colors onto the noir canvas, it’s like something magical elevates a distance memory into a harvest of vibrant imaginations.
Bermond and Maillet, I dare say, are illusionists rather than mere performers. Dark Circus is a sensorial feast, a multidisciplinary masterpiece blending visual art, theatre, manual cinema, music, and storytelling. Using everything from pen, charcoal, paint, ink, chalk, sand, even bubbles in the water, the pair creates completely organic special effects, which constantly draw collective sighs of satisfaction from the audience. The show is a harmonious marriage of art and technology, boundless imagination and absolute discipline, all of which result in the perfect synchronicity between the performers.
The music of the show reminds me of a cross over between Yann Tiersen’s whimsy and Daniel Pemberton’s dazzling use of percussion; it at times also channels Ry Cooder’s mysterious drift between silence and gliding tunes. The performers also make daring choices when it comes to rhythms, combining musical as well as practical instruments.
The aesthetics of Dark Circus will leave you beaming with delight, especially if you enjoyed the nostalgia of The Artist but also have an appetite for the goofiness in A Monster In Paris. Literary aficionados who dug Erin Morgenstern’s deliciously spellbinding novel The Night Circus will also get a kick out of Pef’s original tale that rebuilds a dreamscape of childhood longings, which we inevitably lose between punch cards and our daily procession of busy nothings.
While a highly entertaining show, Dark Circus is more than just a showcase for the virtuosos Mermond and Maillet. (They each probably have at least four hands). The Emcee says at last that the childlike wonder that Dark Circus conjures within us still exists in the red nose of the clowns. Indeed, even if amidst a life of monochrome, there is splendor hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be unlocked by a touch of magic called hope.
(Dark Circus plays at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, through June 4, 2017. The running time is 55 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30; and Sunday at 4. Tickets are $25 and are available at here.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Dark Circus is written and performed by Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet, based on an original story by Pef. Artistic Collaboration with Frédéric Maurin. Technical Direction is by Frank Jamond. Production Supervision is by Ayumu "Poe" Saegusa.