Saturday, July 30, 2016

Once upon a time on the edge of folk wisdom: "Zirkus Grimm" rises again

By the time most of us outgrew the Disney version, life itself and further acquaintance with Grimm's
Energetic dancing is a key element of "Zirkus Grimm."
fairy tales diluted the sweetness we'd acquired a taste for.

You can't wish that away, but "Zirkus Grimm" puts something else in its place. The harshness of the originals comes through in Ben Asaykee's mordant, yet spectacular interpretation, a Q Artistry production playing through next weekend at Circle City Industrial Complex. To make up for the lost sweetness, the show presents tableaux of "life coaching," tough love for the 21st-century spirit in a dynamic expenditure of coordinated energy.

The moralizing is tricked out in traveling-circus style, the large company garbed in schmattes, with steampunk and vintage-shop notes. There are touches of goth, mime, and commedia dell'arte in the stylish makeup. A glum makeshift tent is suspended over the playing area, strands of colored lights strung toward the center overhead.
Asaykwee's direction toys with fatigue and world-weariness, but almost manic pizazz rules the day. The original songs draw on power ballads, rock anthems, cabaret and music-hall numbers. (The Cinder Girl belted out her distress in a manner that reminded me of Grace Slick; I almost expected to hear "Feed your head!" -- an apropos directive to the world's endless supply of cinderellas.)

Familiar dilemma: Little Red Cap is enticed off-course by the Wolf.
These are real troupers, we are given to understand. Life on the road must be conquered in the same way the challenging situations in the tales are met with. The values of being clever, daring, strong, just, brave, and hopeful are upheld. Such useful qualities are specifically attached to selections from the Brothers Grimm collection. The troupe reinterprets them sometimes sketchily, sometimes in detail. The fairy-tale treatments are both tweaked and explicit, mocking and earnest.

Playing the Ringmaster, Asaykwee at first addresses the audience in German before Konig Klown (Matt Anderson) gently corrects him. Attention is fragmented in the life of the itinerant entertainer. It's like a sleep-derived arena rocker shouting "Hello, Indianapolis!" when the band is playing Minneapolis, or vice versa.

Appropriately, the company initially convenes for "Life Is a Circus," laying out a more head-spinning metaphor than a better-known musical's assertion that life is a cabaret. It's a pity the big ensembles, with their often frenetic choreography, come across as too tightly confined in the cozy playing area, surrounded closely by the audience. I found the effect to be like looking through a kaleidoscope while being in the kaleidoscope.

As seen Friday, there was some cutting out of the face mics and occasional sonic overload -- both of which tended to obscure the weighty lyrics. Some songs cut through intact, beautifully shaped, such as Asaykwee's love song in "To Be Brave — Faithful Johannes" and Noah Winston's tender ballad for one of the sorely beset Grimm heroines.

The most deep-delving tales in the Asaykwee view of Grimm seem to be "The Fisherman and His Wife" and "The Robber Bridegroom."  Both speak to the insatiability and simple blindness of human desire, the failure to be circumspect about whatever one wishes most. The scrupulous gusto with which those two tales are handled lends a tragic cast to "Zirkus Grimm."

Escape from the predicaments of fairy tales, when possible, seems to be a matter of dumb luck, with an admixture of those positive qualities mentioned earlier. There are Grimm stories in which shrewdness is a curse: I'd love to see the Asaykweean take on the weird "Clever Elsie" someday. Folk wisdom includes the warning that perhaps nothing avails us when we get in too deep.

As the most notable fabulist-minstrel of our time once put it: "There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief." Jokers and thieves may be well equipped to deal with life's confinements, but any escape is probably in someone else's hands. That's what I think we get from Grimm, a lesson entertainingly confirmed by "Zirkus Grimm," in large part because a glimmer of hope is held out.

[Photos by Raincliffs Photography]

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