Circus: Wandering City

By ETHEL; Directed by Grant McDonald
Co-commissioned by BAM and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Part of BAM's 2018 Next Wave Festival

Off Broadway, Music
Ran through 11.17.18
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street


by Ran Xia on 11.28.18


CircusDorothy Lawson, Kip Jones, Corin Lee, and Ralph Farris in Circus: Wandering City. Photo by Frank Atura.


BOTTOM LINE: ETHEL's third production at BAM brings us a poetic musical documentary on the subject of circus through the ages. 

I must confess: having paid no attention to the fine print, I thought Circus: Wandering City would be a circus show, one somehow performed by a string quartet. That’d be absolutely mind-blowing, I thought. I imagined airborne tricks with delicate instruments and melodies of high octaves—literally. I was of course wrong, albeit pleasantly surprised by something I’ve never experienced before—it was nevertheless mind-blowing, though hardly in the way I had expected.

Even now, I’m still having a hard time defining the genre of the piece. It’s not a play, but there’s clearly an emotional narrative that threads together the pieces of music. The visual projections and voiceovers of personal accounts of circus performers make it more like a story collage, a documentary accompanied by a live concert. Though it’s not exactly a concert either, for the musicians also take center stage, and embody the spirit of the circus through the ages. They are both characters and vessels through which the stories of the circus are translated into music. They communicate with each other, conjure the stories of those real people, and get inspired by the stories that become a backdrop of their performance. And it's also a retrospective: the stories we hear are all memories, but they are rejuvenated by new generations of people who will continue to “join the circus,” because curiosity is incurable—and thank god for that! Perhaps the closest description: Circus: Wandering City is a musical poem dedicated to the circus as a living thing, a love song to this cultural staple as a treasure trove of joy and excitement.

ETHEL, the twenty-year-old quartet taking center stage, is shrouded with glamour as though the spirit of circus has blessed it. Two violinists—the whimsical Corin Lee, who performs quite a few clowning bits as well as showing off his mad skills, and Kip Jones, whose charisma is infectious, one violist—a steady handed Ralph Farris, and a cellist—Dorothy Lawson brings out the rockability of an instrument that is often solemn and still, make up this wordless chorus, invoking the characters you’d see at a circus show. The violinists take on humorous antics as well as engage in whimsical “dueling,” with their bows as well as their melodies. They are the impresarios, the clowns, the sideshow barkers, the showgirls atop a giant elephant, and the aerialists. The familiarity between the musicians, the sense of camaraderie they display, is not unlike that of circus members. The importance of collaboration, and the fragility of the harmony, are other parallels between a string quartet and a circus company.

Jason Ardizzone-West’s more-complex-that-it-looks set includes a collage backdrop that turns into layers of tents with the help of Oona Curley’s lighting and John Narun’s projections. These projections are perhaps of equal importance as the live performers, as they offer necessary context that guides the audience to the emotional logic the show is attempting to build.

Circus: Wandering City is a show that you need to sit with and meditate on: the images, the music, the stories told by people who have given their life to the red and white tent will all move you, if you are willing to let the spirit in. It is not the kind of show that holds your hand on a narrative journey; rather, you must take it all in and chew on its beauty and sorrow—and there is so much to chew on. The nuanced score offers everything, and you can hear the joy, the hurt, and the nostalgia of the wandering marvel that is the circus.

(Circus: Wandering City played at BAM's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, November 14-17, 2018. The running time was 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission. Performances were Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Tickets were $25 - $45. For more information visit and

Circus: Wandering City is by ETHEL. Directed by Grant McDonald. Projection Design by John Narun. Set Design by Jason Ardizzone-West. Costume Design by Beth Goldenberg. Lighting Design by Oona Curley. Sound Design by Stowe Nelson.

The cast is Corin Lee, Kip Jones, Ralph Farris, and Dorothy Lawson.