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GRANDMA GOES WEST

Big Apple Circus

at Soldier Field

I took the whole family to see the Big Apple Circus. The whole family loved it. The Big Apple Circus is fun for the whole family.

No, really. Even little what's-his-name, the two-year-old, ended up loving it--though he was seriously disconcerted by some arty bits early on, where the show's Wild West theme and flavor are established. Moody evocations of the primeval plains sent him scrambling right up over my shoulder.

But Pedro Reis's "cloud swing" act, where he rides a rope like a trapeze, along with some fancy balloon popping by the company clowns helped loosen the kid up. He likes balloons. By the time David Rosaire unleashed a "stampede" of performing Pekingese dogs, he was completely won over. His five-year-old brother, meanwhile, literally fell out of his seat laughing at Rosaire's gun-slinging baboon.

A one-ring, nonprofit, NEA-funded, urban "performing arts organization," complete with hip graphics and an artistic director, Big Apple works more like an off-Loop theater than a big-top circus. It's even got aesthetics--which is to say a propensity for the sort of moody evocation that scared my kid.

But where the other little circuses I've been seeing lately tend to be all moody evocation--emphasizing the mystique, the wonder and illusion of their genre, Big Apple emphasizes the fun. This is probably a cultural distinction: The French Canadian Cirque du Soleil may swath its artists in Marimekko-like fabrics and dry-ice fog; the French French Cirque Imaginaire may create whimsically surreal images out of fans, bottles, and legerdemain but Big Apple is United States American, and therefore has the breakneck Barnum tradition to deal with.

Fortunately, Big Apple artistic director Paul Binder not only deals with it, he embraces it. The company's current show, Grandma Goes West, is a scaled-down, gently funkified tribute to Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West shows--complete with genuine baby buffalo; and except for the odd evocation here and there, the acts tend toward meat-and-potatoes circus fare: trick riding, whip cracking, knife throwing, fancy roping, tumbling, flying, trained elephants, and baggypants clowning.

As charmed as I was by most everything in this show, the clowns were my favorites. Cesar Aedo is obviously the lost love child of Harpo Marx and Marcel Marceau. His attempts to move a rebellious suitcase are hilarious and wonderful; his audience games combine uncommon gentleness with a frenetic physical wit.

The resident clowns--Grandma, Oaf, and Mr. Fish--are no slouches, either. John Lepiarz's Fish looks a lot like Chicago folk troubadour Jim Post and is just about as good with his hands, throwing a mean knife and cracking a nasty whip. David Casey makes a good fop as Oaf. And Barry Lubin's sweet, deadpan Grandma gives the show its warm but not at all soppy heart. My two-year-old is now thoroughly confused about how this "Grandma Clown" fits into our family.

Taso Stavrakis does some fine acrobatic clowning, but the most exciting gymnastic work comes from the Rios Brothers, whose act is defined as "acrobatic foot juggling with a human partner." Basically, Michel Rios lies on his back and balances Mehdi Rios on his feet while Mehdi performs long chains of somersaults.

To tell the truth, I even liked the moody evocations--or what I could see of them over my kid's body as he clawed his way toward the exit. Stephen Kaplin's brief shadow-puppet vignettes are lovely, panicked babies notwithstanding.

The Big Apple Circus closes June 23, so see it now now now. And bring the whole family.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patricia Lanza.

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