Entering its 36th year, Circus Oz functions more like a troupe of street performers than the lion-tamers and whip-crackers of old
They might come tumbling out of a wicker basket of a hot air balloon at the beginning, but there’s nothing otherworldly about the rough-and-ready bunch settling in under the Big Top for the winter. Circus Oz’s new show, But Wait… There’s More is – as Circus Oz shows always are – embedded in political consciousness and packed with anarchic humour.
This show is also the first to come out of the Melbourne group’s new Collingwood headquarters. Back for its 36th year, the company’s new ensemble is a mixed bag mob of several veteran Circus Oz performers and a whole swag of newcomers.
The stage is large, but feels intimate. Creative use of warm lighting gives depth and substance to the huge, inflatable proscenium arch by designer Felipe Reynolds. The set is a fusion of smoky vaudeville hall and derelict circus tent – but there’s no room for lion-tamers or whip-crackers here. This is forward thinking, rock’n’roll circus, and the surprises come thick and fast.
Devilish pocket rocket Lilikoi Kaos saunters on in glittering showgirl garb and twists herself into a frenzy, mastering more hula-hoops than you’d think possible. Another early highlight is the visually poetic duet between unicyclist Kyle Raftery and acrobat April Dawson. Through each scene transition, former Circus Oz performer Deb Batton’s direction makes clever use of the space, focussing the attention on different corners of the stage and sparing its full use for the big numbers.
Unfortunately, in these larger scenes, many of the performers don’t maintain the same focus or energy as they do in their individual displays of talent. The big opening number feels slightly undercooked and is too loosely choreographed. When not in the direct spotlight, some ensemble members drop their game faces a little too often for a professional circus troupe. At times, there issomething lacking in the chemistry of a group that should have felt tighter than tight.
Rough at the edges as it is, the action heats up as it goes along. Under the artistic direction of Mike Finch, the show explores (or rather, attacks) mass consumerism and so-called “infobesity” that we use to plug the hole where human connection should be. “Freedom is a furniture store! Acrobat is software!” says Circus Oz stalwart Matt Wilson, glaring down from chairs stacked five-high. He steals the show as the evil capitalist clown presiding as judge in a perverse version of Australia’s Got Talent. This segment – along with signs emblazoned with slogans like ‘CLOSE YOUR MIND’ and ‘YOU’RE UNWORTHY’– gets the balance exactly right between humour and poignancy, but other bits like hip-hop emcee Candy Bowers’ gender-bending ‘Rich and thin’ diatribe don't quite hit the mark, tone-wise.
But if a company like Cirque du Soleil is the arty, impeccably groomed member of the circus family, then Circus Oz is its crazy cousin that it would do well to hang out with more often. Most of the solo performances display incredible ingenuity and skill, including Spenser Inwood’s dreamy, deceivingly effortless trapeze routine. One of the real surprises of the night comes from wiry-haired, hilariously deadpan clown Olivia Porter. Just by standing still, she spends most of the show stealing attention from the other performers. There’s always a sense that she’ll pull something special out toward the end, but there’s no predicting her intensely precise, artfully awkward contact juggling routine. Matched with the retro video game soundtrack by musical director Ania Reynolds, the whole package is riveting.
Hungry for more of these astounding solo feats, we’re just as wistful as the performers themselves seem to be as they squeeze back into their wicker basket. We wish they’d stick around. But in the end, the purpose of these children of the carnival is to bounce into town, shake things up, and then skip away to do the same somewhere else. Hopefully, it won’t be long until they’re back.