Barnum’s “Funundrum”

I’ve caught the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey three ring show roughly once a decade since the mid-1970s. Surprisingly this year was the first time I kind of enjoyed it. In the past, even at the age of ten, my disdain for the show was near total. While promising a show for “all ages”, what it delivers is a product as intellectually challenging as Barney and Friends but requiring the patience of a nonagenarian to sit through. Instead of a show for all ages, it seems to me a show for no ages.

Yet, I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of satisfied customers stream out over the years, and one ought to be glad that all these people are buying tickets to the circus when they could be home plugging themselves into the sofa so they can play some game that simulates the experience of shooting people with machine guns. And besides, who cares what the sniffy critic has to say about anything? (Don’t answer that). I can’t speak for anyone else. I can just say what the circus seems to promise (thus what I’m hoping to see), and how it constantly disappoints this particular circus-goer. At the circus (and indeed at all theatre) I’m hoping for bewitching mix of the old and the new: an aesthetic package that grounds me somehow in a powerful way (brings me “home”), then proceeds to deliver surprises. The centrifugal in balance with the centripedal. Surely some of the acrobats will understand that, even if circus directors do not.

Most modern circuses (including Ringling) usually let me down on the first front by modernizing in all the wrong ways: replacing calliopes with synthesizers and cheesy electric guitars; dressing their performers like the cast of Cats; etc. Meanwhile the format of the show ossifies. Circus – the one place on earth above all that is supposed to expose us to “wonders” and “miracles” and “thrills” and “surprises” – never ever EVER does. The Ringling Brothers show is the worst offender.

Granted, part of this is out of their control. We are at a depressing point in history. For example, there are really no new exotic wild beasts to reveal to us – the last was probably Gargantua the Gorilla in the 1930s and 40s. The wild parts of the planet have been conquered and plundered. To provide the kind of expectation the circus USED to provide, we’d have to send explorers to bring back flying mollusks from another planet. As for the traditional circus animals: we’ve seen them all, we’ve seen their limited repertoires, and furthermore, the variety seems to be dwindling. No bears, no simians, no giraffes, no lions – just a bunch of seemingly drugged tigers and elephants going through the motions of their tricks for the thousandth time. This edition of Ringling didn’t even feature any horses – the circus’s very reason for existing. In the most egregious portion of Funundrum, a supposed tribute to a wild west show, a bunch of petting zoo animals (llamas, Shetland ponies and burrows) trotted around the stage while some insufferable faux country music played. All I can is they had better not present THAT anywhere West of Ohio. There are still huge parts of the country where the children ride man-sized horses and they’re liable to laugh at your little circus.

The humans come off no better. The climax of the Sky High Ice Glider’s trapeze act? A quadruple somersault – the same finish I saw to Ringling Bros.’ trapeze act back in 1976. The effect was not enhanced by the fact that the somersalter was not caught by his partner, and he departed from the set prematurely via the safety net, with all the dignity of a cat climbing out of a swimming pool. (These are the same performers who seemed to lean a little too hard on their safety ropes during the high wire act. My view has always been: no risk = no thrill = no reason to buy a ticket). Every act is something you’ve seen a hundred times before, with a “big finish” you’ve seen an equal hundred. Why would anyone ever go back?

Well, it’s the same little brownie that flew belatedly out of Pandora’s Box: hope. Once, people EXPECTED to be flabbergasted at the circus. Today, we HOPE that there might be some tiny deviation from its depressing rut. This year, my pleasant surprise was the sop to tradition. 2010 is the bicentennial year of P.T. Barnum’s birth.  The show was structured as a sort of tribute to him. In some sense then, my feeling that the show has improved is probably illusory. From where I stand, EVERY edition of the circus would be a tribute to him, in some way. I mean, come on! Still I was grateful for the many stylistic touches that evoked Americana, from the red, white and blue costumes of the Flying Caceres, to the slides of 19th century color lithographs projected onto video screens. An extended tribute to the American sideshow was welcome until I saw the flaws. A faked bearded lady? NYC has its own bearded lady, a real one, Circus Amok’s Jennifer Miller. And New York has its own sideshow out at Dick Zigun’s Coney Island USA. (Which is about to launch an awesome, nine-day Congress of Curious Peoples, April 9-18. More on this in a couple of days.)  These people LIVE the true spirit of Barnum, and they don’t need any stinking anniversary. The sham was highlighted by the lyrics to the cringe-inducing theme song they kept shoving down our throats:

The sideshow

Is taking center stage.

P.T. Barnum wrote the book

And we’re borrowing a page.

I don’t understand. Aren’t you P.T. Barnum’s organization? Or are you? What ARE you then, if you need to “borrow a page” from the book he wrote? YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE THAT BOOK!!!!!!!!!

Okay, okay, calm down. You’ve had too much popcorn and lemonade.

Besides, I said I kind of liked it, or like it more than usual, and I meant it. There are just the smallest signs of cracks in the ossified edifice. African American ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson is a welcome relief from the guy they used to have, who reminded me of Gary Owens, and whose brand of phoniness made me grind my teeth. You get the impression that Iverson is actually talking to the audience and might secretly be a human being. This is a big trade up. I liked ALL of the production design a great deal and this is really saying something, since I normally revile it. The costumes, music (but not the lyrics), and the projected images were tasteful, beautiful, traditional, colorful (yet understated), and inventive. You got the idea that new hand was on the tiller, one a bit more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. Furthermore, the whole first act was done in one “ring”, allowing us to better focus on (and thus enjoy) the proceedings. (In the second act they reverted to the three ring format, to the detriment of the show). My guess is that some of these innovations might be due to the influence of CEO Kenneth Feld’s daughters Nicole and Alana, who have begin to produce the show. Even the idea to do a sideshow bit, as inauthentic as it was, smacks of generational change. Hope for the future?

Also, there is nothing to compare to Ringling Bros charivari, when the entire company comes out at the same time at the top of the show. The sheer scale of it cannot fail to impress. And it was during the charivari that a minor detail caught my eye. It’s just the sort of thing I’m looking for in a modern circus, and unfortunately there was no payoff. Several of the cast members entered the ring riding on Segways. Segways are novel, exotic, weird. In short, they or something like them are what I want to see in the circus. (Saying they’re lame and only go three miles an hour misses the point. I want to see something NEW. I don’t care what the hell it is. If the Segway by itself is lame, and a chimp by itself is lame, a chimp riding a Segway may well NOT be lame. In fact, that’s something I would like very much to see.)


Chimps on Segways. Thus sayeth the Lord.

Barnum’s “Funundrum” has ended its NYC run at Madison Square Garden. If you’re interested in learning about other tour dates go here.

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