Under the Small Top: Circus Flora is in town — and that's always a good thing

Circus Flora

Circus Flora
Through June 22 at North Grand Boulevard and Samuel Shepard Drive (east of Powell Hall).
Tickets are $8 to $35. Call 314-289-4040 or visit www.circusflora.org.

In search of an evening of thrills and chills, low comedy and high suspense? All those larger-than-life emotions that theater is supposed to deliver? Not to worry; they're available in abundance. Only this week we don't call it theater; we call it the circus. A misnomer, if ever there was one, because Circus Flora, which once again has set up its tent behind Powell Hall, is the most unashamedly modest yet completely satisfying theatrical event in town.

This year's theme, Sherwood Forest, makes slightly more sense than themes in years past. When we hear that the Sheriff of Nottingham is responsible for mortgage foreclosures, the link to medieval England is smoothly made. But as always the motif is little more than a convenient steppingstone to the high wires and trapeze batons. Yet because the tent is so snug, the human element takes precedence over any sense of spectacle. Yes, it's fun to watch a girl standing erect on the back of a speeding horse; it's equally compelling to be so close that we can see her focused eyes as she prepares to leap onto that horse.

There's no place in Circus Flora for snarling lions and tigers and bears, no room for cages, no time for macho displays of man triumphing over beast. What we get instead is an exhilarating celebration of the astonishing elasticity of the human body. In addition to those young girls standing on the backs of galloping horses, one lithe lad does a somersault off the back of a stallion. The St. Louis Arches (ages eight to eighteen) pivot through the air as if their slippers contain hidden springs. A sensuous trapeze duet by Ben Wendel and Rachel Nehmer is so deliciously provocative that if it were filmed, the movie version would be rated "R."

But most of the entertainment is family fare. Nino the Clown (the adroit Giovanni Zoppe), whose often hilarious sketches keep the show moving, has a beguiling partner who is only four years old. Little Nino, whose miniature face is almost hidden behind a bulbous nose, hasn't yet mastered all the tricks of the trade, but he sure knows how to elicit applause. Then there is six-year-old Isabella, the youngest of the legendary Flying Wallendas. It's impressive enough when Isabella sits atop a human pyramid on the high wire; equally striking is to watch this six-year-old prior to her act, out of the spotlight, scampering up the ladder to the top of the tent. A squirrel couldn't go faster.

Though it was the Three Musketeers who espoused the cause of all for one and one for all, that same maxim permeates the behavior of Robin Hood and his merry men. Although some performers receive higher billing than others, the evening is admirably egalitarian. Throughout the first act, we watch a member of the stage crew at the side of the ring handle the rigging for the various attractions; then at the end of Act One we discover that he is actually the patriarch of the family Wallenda.

No one should think that because this is Circus Flora's 22nd annual appearance here, the show has become old hat. No way. There are many new elements — including the seats, all of which now have backs. But the overriding constant is that this one-ring circus continues to think small. So we are bemused by goats riding on the Sheriff of Nottingham's shoulders, and we watch six tiny ponies whose primary charm is simply that they exist. The pony act sums up the essence of this remarkable entertainment. In these loud, crass, "bigger is better" times, perhaps the most satisfying thing about Circus Flora is simply that such supremely gentle entertainment even exists. 

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