We’ve all met the clueless kid who shows up in Manhattan with a map and a c.v., ready for an office and an apartment and a hot romance. And we know where that kid winds up: with half a bedroom in Ridgewood, gigs on TaskRabbit, long evenings streaming sitcoms on his phone. Henry Evans, a couple of years out of Muhlenberg College, and fellow grad Tommy McCarthy take this kid and make him the center of Lucky. The pair are members of Atlas Circus Company, founded at the Allentown, Pennsylvania school whose theater and dance department has spawned a flock of circus-mad students since it began offering aerial acrobatics classes in 2012. Recent grads are looking to perform as clowns and acrobats as well as dancers and actors, and Evans and McCarthy are making that happen.
Old-fashioned sleight of hand is part of Lucky’s repertoire; so as not to spoil the effect of one of its best devices, I will say only that Lucky celebrates the hapless new arrival in the city as he looks for work and a home in a number of precarious places, among them a park where he spends a night on a bench — maybe not the brightest idea. It all unfolds to a mixture of live and recorded Fifties-style tunes, the latter often lip-synced by the performers; the former emanate from a baby grand stage right, at which sits David Evans, associate conductor of Broadway’s Wicked, who happens to be the father of Henry, the show’s director and leading man. Henry’s joined by perky Avery Deutsch, rangy Russell Norris, and sturdy Leo Abel, all of whom take hapless turns at park maintenance.
Lucky is at times naïve, sometimes even silly. Abel, a talented Brazilian with a good decade on the rest of the cast, plays the bully and the strongman throughout, cramming into his mouth several phallic foodstuffs; the banana peel he discards will, you just know, trip someone before the lights go out. But Evans, an experienced, gifted performer, sustains his focus through vignettes that might fluster a much older artist. His dorky character pulls blossoms from diverse cavities, dangles from an I-beam high above a construction site, juggles the meatballs off a platter of spaghetti at the Italian restaurant where he’s a trainee, hammers out rhythmic messages to the cute girl on the other side of the wall at a cube farm. He loses all the jobs, and most of his belongings, but he’s indefatigable, still standing at the end.
The ensemble’s decision to forgo ordinary English language in favor of babble and gobbledygook, especially from the very tall, very skinny, very long-haired physical comedian Norris, seems a missed opportunity. But perhaps the appeal of circus to this burgeoning young class is the absence of speaking: You don’t need to learn lines, you don’t need to write them, you don’t need the logical connections demanded by a play or even by sophisticated choreography. One incident can follow another in just about any order. This, Atlas’s third major production, favors nonverbal narrative and storytelling, though the several scenes in the endearing hour-long show are trumpeted by short titles on a signboard. Atlas integrates circus stunts with theatrical timing. Without benefit of spandex or spangles, nets or other trappings of the old-time circus ring, Evans and company make us care about the characters they create. The ring might be dead, but long live its many new manifestations!
I’ve caught several circus shows this year, often accompanied by Franky, a young relative whose parents, now based on the Lower East Side, are alums of Australia’s Circus Oz. She’s an eleven-year-old whose idea of a good time is parkour, and who never misses a chance to climb things. Last week she had a fabulous time at Lucky, but seemed to be the only youngster in the packed house, which was odd. In July, Franky and I watched Compagnie XY, a French troupe, at the Lincoln Center Festival; she loved that, too. I was struck by the minimalism of their entire production. The 22-person ensemble wore ordinary street clothes and managed with only the most basic equipment, like a teeter-totter to spring acrobats into space and onto one another’s shoulders. I might have been watching members of Yvonne Rainer’s cohort at the Judson Church, so plain and uninflected was their affect. I also took her to see the revelatory, deeply personal Les 7 Doigts de la Main out of Montreal (also the home of Cirque du Soleil, which began in 1984 and has grown to become the largest theatrical producer in the world).
Both of these shows fronted emotional connections among the participants, XY making clear, from the stage and in a program note, that interpersonal skills and care for one another are as important to their success as the stunts they perform. While Les 7 Doigts riveted our attention by dangling and dropping from the Skirball Center’s ceiling on fragile silks, they took time to tell us their moving backstories. Atlas would be stronger if it were a tad less generic, less classically slapstick, and let us see its characters in more depth. Not afraid, that is, to use its words.
The blossoming of training schools for trapeze artists, for gymnastics and juggling and aerial acrobatics and stunts and tumbling, has happened just as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was failing; that loss and the disappearance of New York’s own Big Apple (apparently soon to be reborn under new ownership) got me thinking about the place of circus in the spectrum of American entertainment. College classes in circus skills flourish, even as the job market for them seems to be drying up. Witness the success of the Circus Warehouse, an 8,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City where professionals from all over the world come to train and teach. And of Elizabeth Streb’s Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, a/k/a SLAM, in Williamsburg, where kids flock to acquire trapeze skills. Gone are the circus trains and the squads of large animals, but the basic joie de vivre and challenge of the genre remain.
Atlas Circus Company
161A Chrystie Street
Through August 16