Send in the Clowns

by Jess Herrera

quirkuscircusThey say the circus arrives without warning, but what happens when the circus blows its top? That’s exactly what happens in Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster, a new addition to the family series at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show attempts the impossible, seeking to create a storyline that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of the audience while also entertaining adults. And while it has moments of perfectly walking this tightrope, it also comes dangerously close to toppling in others.

In the story, written by local playwright Tyler West and featuring original music by Michael Martinez, we follow the Quirkus Circus troupe as they discover their ringmaster has packed up and headed to join Cirque du Soleil – taking all the animals with him.

A lovable, silent clown named Eddie, played by Stephen Frankenfield, first sets the stage and invites audience participation. He quickly becomes the highlight of the show. Without spoken dialogue, he launches through the rows of audience members to get kids jumping out of their seats just moments after the lights go up. And his impeccable physical comedy quickly wins over even the oldest and most skeptical audience members.

Eddie is joined by the acrobat Margaret, played by Taylor Thomas. Her performance is delightfully earnest without being saccharine. And with a swirl of her sparkling dress, she elicits squeals of excitement from the audience (particularly from my five-year-old daughter, who joined me for the show).

The last members of Quirkus Circus are Natasha and Boris, played by Ericka Quintero Heras and Jon Heras. Unsurprising to anyone who remembers Rocky and Bullwinkle, they’re a married duo whose act is a mix of magic tricks, death defying feats, and a healthy dose of bickering.

Finally, after the revelation that the ringleader is missing, a replacement named Paul is quickly pulled from the audience. Paul is played by William Seidel. He is believably timid and hesitant to join the performance.

Through Margaret’s coaching and Eddie’s encouragement, we follow Paul as he finds his voice as a ringleader and gains confidence to help lead the circus. In the process, we learn an important lesson: You should be willing try things that might be scary because it’s the things that give you butterflies may have the biggest payoff.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Under the direction of Kristian Kissel, the players seamlessly mix their interactions with one another and the audience. The choreography and sets are simple but add just enough flourish to take the audience to the big top.

Unfortunately the musical numbers were a bit unbalanced. The songs were catchy, but the harmonies were occasionally off. The stronger vocals of some cast members overpowered others.

And a few moments that felt as if they were written for the benefit of the adults fell flat. Boris and Natasha, with their borrowed names, needed a stronger storyline. And the depiction of a stereotype was borderline offensive. Their ambiguous accents wavered from a loose Russian to French and even a familiar Sonoran dialect. Their tango number made things even more confusing.

Accents can be very difficult to master, and it’s even harder to emulate characters the audience may be familiar with. I think Boris and Natasha could benefit greatly from a rebranding and a shift away from their ambiguously Russian caricatures.

Despite these few pitfalls, Quirkus Circus is an excellent way to introduce young children to theater. Running at just 45 minutes, it’s participatory, light, and overall highly enjoyable.

Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through June 9. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

Children Need Quality Theatre Too

by Gretchen Wirges

The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot is a family show with a lot of humor, a lot of unexpected messages, and a lot of joy. Often, family theatre is dismissed as not “real” theatre. But what we forget is that family-style shows are often a child’s first exposure to live theatre. Theatres that produce quality family programming have the opportunity to spark a life-long love of the stage.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

I took my cousin’s 5-year-old Lucas with me to see Brave Knight. He was antsy from the second we walked in because he was so excited for the show. We sat in the back row  (his choice) and ooh-ed and ah-ed over the beautifully painted forest on stage.

The story, written by local playwright Richard Gremel, was based on the legend of Sir Lancelot, but took a different twist by creating a play-within-a-play when Lancelot and a wandering acting troupe team up to tell us the story of Lancelot’s most recent conquest. The difference between this show and much of the canned children’s shows I’ve seen was that this show took the cultural care to ensure gender roles were not cliche. Destiny, a maiden wandering through the woods, is out on a quest of her own. She isn’t lost, she doesn’t need to be rescued, and she surely isn’t intending to be swept up in romance by the first handsome face she sees.

Under the direction of Erica Quintero Heras, the show really was wonderfully choreographed and cast. It isn’t mired down by too many costumes or set changes or elaborate movement. The basics were kept simple, allowing the cast to work their magic with the script.

Lancelot, played by William Seidel, was cheeky and brought a fun spirit to Sir Lancelot. His performance was a little bit timid, mostly surrounding what appeared to be lack confidence in his singing. His sidekick Bob, played by Adrian Encinas, was so wonderfully funny and bright. His facial expressions and character vocalization added so much color to the dialogue and the show as a whole. Kyleigh Sacco, who played Destiny, was powerful and strong and believable as this spirited maiden. Amanda Gremel played the roving actor who becomes the witch Sybil. Gremel was funny and animated and added so much to the story. And Taylor Thomas, playing Sybil’s henchwoman Helga, was delightful to watch, especially in her musical numbers. Thomas, Gremel and Sacco’s singing really made it work as a musical.

When I asked Lucas what he thought about the show he said he was sad. Surprised by that answer, I asked him why. “Because I hoped it would be longer,” was his response. I’d say that’s a rousing endorsement from this critical 5-year-old. Lucas and I left Live Theater Workshop with smiles on our faces and clucking like chickens. (You’ll have to go see the show to find out why!)

I thought the story was refreshing and unexpected. I don’t have kids of my own, but I couldn’t help but think about how great it is for kids to see these types of stories where the girl isn’t the perpetual weak victim and the hero isn’t always the dashing male protagonist.

The Brave Knight Sir Lancelot is playing at Live Theater Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through March 24. You can buy tickets on their website, livetheaterworkshop.org, or by calling the box office at 520-327-4242.