Theater

The Clown Jewels

Circus Oz, the Australian troupe now swinging the trapeze at the New Victory, looks like it owes more to the Village Halloween Parade than to Barnum & Bailey. Sex has always been a covert draw at circuses, even at the old-time, big-tent extravaganzas. Think of the scanty costumes, the bare-chested musclemen, and, ooh, those lion tamers cracking their whips. But Circus Oz wears its lusty underside on the outside—in an edgy, outré style that sends up the circus even while celebrating it.

Oz has no animals. Instead, a vamp in silver lamé cracks her whip to coax an aerialist—clad in black tutu and silver-studded leather—across the high wire. These two costumes are just a few of the amusing getups sported by the company. The gymnasts wear red stretch suits with cutouts sprouting inflated white muscles or Day-Glo suits marked "Bicep" and "Hamstring" on the appropriate spots. Ostentatious codpieces are displayed among the fake fur and sateen.

Circus Oz: down under on top
photo: Ponche Hawkes
Circus Oz: down under on top

Never fear, though—the kiddies will be safe. On one night, a gaggle of tots filled the theater with high-pitched laughter and screams of delight without seeming in any way cognizant of the more adult comedy. There's no need to understand what's being spoofed to find these guys funny—as well as skillful. In one sequence, the acrobats, attired mostly in gauzy blue with wings, arrange themselves in tableaux imitating famous classical fountains. There is much farcical spitting of water and a giant shell that rises from the deep to open on a smirking Cupid—the ultimate coy boy-toy.

Some acts display a simple beauty. As marbled lighting bathes the stage and performers, two white-clad female aerialists dangle on loops of rope, embracing and stretching suggestively against each other with balletic grace. Then there's the supple male acrobat who twists and glides against a vertical hanging rope like a snake charmer in a mesmerizing dance with his snake.

Though the troupe is small, the acts are many and varied, with wrestlers, hoop twirlers, and musicians melding their talents. One of the hits of the show is a routine in which the clown retires to his dressing room to change. Wearing magnetic shoes, he strolls along the ceiling, struggling to take off his jacket and pour a glass of whisky down his throat. The kids in the audience, unable to contain themselves, call out suggestions. For the adults, the joke is his insouciant style as Sinatra croons "My Way." This bit could serve as an apt metaphor for Circus Oz, which constantly surprises by turning the old-style circus upside down. —Francine Russo


Flatly Ambiguous

"I was born where it's flat and I hope to die where it's flat," declares one of the elderly residents of the small, sterile nursing home in Harrison, Texas, where The Last of the Thorntons is set. "I don't want to go anyplace else." Neither, aesthetically speaking, does his author: Horton Foote's latest work (Signature Theater) is among the more disquieting of his many theatrical tributes to flatness. In his plays, the flat landscape seems to breed flat recitals of data that pass for dialogue, flat assertions that pass for conflict, flat terminations that pass for dramatic resolution. Yet in this stagy aridity, Foote can grow a wavery ambiguity resembling the empty husk of drama, like the silage fed to cattle in the arid air outside his Texas interiors. The nutritive grain the husk might have contained has inexplicably vanished; to ask where and how only deepens the mystery. Like objects viewed from a great distance on an open plain, Foote's plays are never what they appear to be, but impossible to define as anything else.

The Last of the Thorntons is steeped in topics suitable for one of our oldest practicing playwrights (b. 1916): old age, memory, and history. Except for two nurses and a few visitors, the characters are all either residents of or candidates for the home. Though they all complain about forgetting things, their recollections, when properly cued, have a nonstop, rattling exactitude. The time is 1970, but the talk rarely advances beyond the 1920s. The heroine, Miss Alberta Thornton (Hallie Foote), is the surviving member of the once influential clan that built the town. Fixated alternately on her ancestors' guilt as slaveholders and her teenage crushes on silent-screen stars who died young, she imagines that her remaining relatives (none of whom bears the name Thornton) have bilked her out of her home and property. Whether she's right or wrong doesn't concern the playwright, who merely presents the relatives and leaves us to judge. Like other dramatic issues—the nursing home's other residents are just as unhappy—Miss Alberta's story merely hovers, unresolved, in the dry Texas air, its brief upsurges into anguish mirrored in the storm outside that, though expected to last all day and night, blows over almost immediately.

Like earlier Foote plays, this one's dogged by the persistent sense that he may be poking fun at his characters' small-minded, repetitive ways: It's hard to tell if James Houghton's production, in treading stolidly past every potential joke, is betraying or fulfilling the author's intentions. Even Estelle Parsons, as the town's last lucid Golden Ager, repository of local history, and resident snoop, never pushes her bright chatter into comic absurdity. Her vivacity and Hallie Foote's frayed-nerve pathos make a strong pair of pillars to support this pale, near-abstract event—contrasting caryatids of Comedy and Tragedy, with ranch dressing. Anne Pitoniak, Jen Jones, and Mason Adams effectively populate the eerily barren field that stretches between these twin towers. But it's still hard to fathom what dramatic crop Foote meant this unvaried, level land to yield. —Michael Feingold

 
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