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CIRCUS OF THE SCARS

Few laughs among Cirque Boom’s feats of vice & virtue

for The Brooklyn Paper
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In Roman times, circuses were designed to divert attention from a deteriorating society, and for the most part they still perform that function today. But in an ironic twist, Cirque Boom has created "The Circus of Vices and Virtues 2003," now at the Brooklyn Lyceum, to focus our attention on the evils of the Western world.

Inspired both by the work of the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, who infused his paintings with allegorical, sometimes sinister meaning, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the societal tensions that have followed, Cirque Boom artistic director Ruth Juliet Wikler has used the world of clowns, aerial artists and acrobats for political satire and social commentary.

Cirque Boom is a Brooklyn-based ensemble founded by Wikler in January 2002.

"The Circus of Vices and Virtues 2003" is subtitled: "Physical performances for a polarized world." There’s plenty of human vice here but little human virtue.

The circus opens with "Charivari," described in the program as "a riff on the pre- and post-show melees of traditional circus." Here the sinister and sensuous contortions of the acrobats, and the shrill, pre-recorded music are ample warning to the audience that this will be a circus unlike any they’ve seen before.

In the section called "Sloth," a housewife (Cody Schreger) wrestles with two goblins who emerge from a cardboard TV set (Olivia Lehrman and Leah Abel). Two executives (Jeff Wills and Anna Zastrow) stride onto the stage on stilts and destroy the world (a small globe that looks like a bowling ball) in "Greed." Three dolls (Leah Abel, Lehrman and Schreger), connected and sometimes dangling from a common rope, put on their makeup, then ruin each other’s makeup in "Envy."

Two of the most successful segments are "Lust," in which Melissa Riker has choreographed her own graceful performance on what Wikler calls an "aerial fabric loop," and "Pride," Zastrow’s hilarious portrayal of an aspiring corporate executive who turns from a timid clown into a virago with a whip.

In between the acts, Sonia Werner, dressed in a three-piece suit and sporting a painted moustache, appears as "Dick." Dick is wheeled onto the stage in a makeshift circus float made principally from a shopping cart, and spouts the babble of the worst kind of politician.

The goal of Cirque Boom, "to create circus that matters and theater that amazes," is certainly worthwhile - even noble. But the first and primary goal of entertainment should be to entertain. In other words, the medium is the sugar that makes the medicine go down.

The 10 performers in the Cirque Boom ensemble are talented circus artists, but they are scarcely allowed to display their skills. The trapeze that has been set up onstage is used only once.

For the most part, the performers jump over and under each other, engage in stage combat and execute (admittedly impressive) gymnastic feats. But let’s face it, this show is billed as a circus, and the audience has a right to expect something more.

Nevertheless, Wikler and her cast and crew deserve credit for their effort to unite spectacle with serious thought. "The Circus of Vices and Virtues" attempts to expose the core of human misbehavior - the characteristics that lead humans to harm one another as they pursue power, material goods or satisfaction of desire. Unfortunately, the troupe stops there. How much more effective this circus might have been had Cirque Boom also turned its attention to how people can overcome base desires, and better themselves and the world.

Most of the performers in "The Circus of Vices and Virtues" appear quite young. Perhaps with time, they will learn to take themselves a bit less seriously, to lighten up, have fun, and allow the audience to have fun, too.

With the confidence that comes with age and experience they will realize that people can be touched without being consistently banged over the head, and that great art made in the midst of war, plagues and other calamities, may present tragedy but also offer hope.


Cirque Boom presents "The Circus of Vices and Virtues" at the Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 Fourth Ave. at President Street in Park Slope, through April 12, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets are $12. For reservations, call (866) GOWANUS or visit www.cirqueboom.org or www.gowanus.com.

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