By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You never know what you're going to get when you go on an anti-communist tirade.
Take The Invisible Circus. It never would have come into being if Joe McCarthy hadn't made things too hot in America for artists like Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin emigrated to Switzerland to escape the ill wind of McCarthyism, taking his daughter Victoria with him. There she studied music and dance and eventually hooked up with her future husband, Jean Baptiste Thierree. Together, they developed the unique and one of the most remarkable forms of expression to be seen on the stage today.
The Invisible Circus is a combination of Thierree's absurdist magic tricks and illusions and Chaplin's acrobatics, contortions, and startling transformations. It all plays out on a mat twenty-three feet in diameter, generally with two performers alternating acts.
Chaplin and Thierree developed their program, a distillation and refinement of illusions and circus acts dating back centuries, in 1991 in Florence, Italy. It is their third collaboration on a circus. The first, Le Cirque Bonjour (1971-'74), was a traditional circus featuring lions, tigers, and whatnot. The second, Le Cirque Imaginaire (1975-1990), was a more avant garde interpretation of the circus, and was performed around the world. The Invisible Circus opened in Florence and has since played in London, New York, Boston, Southern California, Seville, and now Big D.
The show's presence in Dallas is attributable to the fine (but generally hidden) antenna on top of Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger's head. Having heard good things about it, Hamburger checked out The Invisible Circus when it played in La Jolla, California. He then met with Chaplin and Thierree and massaged them into bringing their act to the Metroplex. The show has played to increasingly large audiences as word of mouth has spread, and promises to be a highlight of the local theatrical season.
In a format that transcends language, The Invisible Circus is an assault on traditional notions of sense and reality, taking audiences "Through the Looking Glass" into a world that's beautiful, macabre, or just plain goofy, as the case may be.
Thierree is a clown who takes the prosaic expectations of reality that most of us are trapped in and turns them on their ear. Whether he is ingesting candles or incomprehensibly compressing doves into two-dimensional space, Thierree continually trips the audience up on the wire of its own conventional, linear thinking.
With his shock of silver hair and impish smile, Thierree resembles a cross between Harpo Marx and Red Skelton. His clownish demeanor is belied, however, by a varied and impressive resume. Born into a working-class Parisian family, Thierree has elevated himself into the ranks of the world's true Renaissance men. He has played classic stage roles such as Hamlet and acted in films by Alain Resnais and Federico Fellini. He has produced numerous stage shows of his own in addition to the two other circuses he created with Chaplin. Add to his theater, film, and circus credits the fact that Thierree is a successful painter and writer of numerous novels, and you have a man whose accomplishments dwarf those of ordinary mortals. Still, that doesn't prevent him from mooning the audience with an enormous pair of plastic ass-cheeks, or from mining the annals of vaudeville for some pretty simplistic, albeit funny, tricks.
Chaplin also plays with audience expectations, but in a slightly different way. She has developed a genius for extracting the beautiful or the bizarre from the banal. Ordinary wooden chairs become an imposing, impossible steed under her deft direction. A woman's ball gown transforms into a Martian, boots become a peacock, and a dress becomes a self-devouring reptile as she looks on in as much wonder as the rest of us.
In addition, Chaplin is an accomplished contortionist who can wedge herself into a space that would make a rhesus monkey claustrophobic. She also takes a turn on the high wire and transforms an ordinary rope swing into the Ride of the Valkyries. Not content with all these accomplishments, Chaplin is a costume designer of unlimited creativity and wit. She both created the dazzling costumes for the show and selected the music, which is as alternately odd and beautiful as The Invisible Circus itself.
By the end of a two-hour montage of hallucinogenic images, visual puns, transformations, and feats of balletic grace, you are literally expecting the impossible to happen. Thierree and Chaplin have succeeded in warping your perceptions and expectations to their unique point of view, and a delightful and revelatory frame of reference it is. As an added bonus, this theatrical production is a treat for kids.
The Invisible Circus is close to selling out and will only run for a few days after publication of this review. A quick call to the Dallas Theater Center is therefore strongly suggested.
Keep in mind, however, that the show is playing at the Arts District Theater on Flora, next to the Meyerson, not at the Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek. If you try going to the latter, as one dim reviewer recently did, the circus really will be invisible.
The Invisible Circus runs through October 15 at the Arts District Theater. Call 522-8489.