Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY MIRIAM DINUNZIO Staff Re­porter Email: md­i­n­un­zio@ sun­times. com Twit­ter: @ Miri­amDiNun­zio

If ever there was a by­gone era, the world of the clas­sic cir­cus would surely fill the bill.

With the an­nounce­ment ear­lier this year that Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus was end­ing its 146- year run, there was a col­lec­tive sigh heard ’ round the world from cir­cus fans, those “chil­dren of all ages” who once grew wide- eyed with ex­cite­ment with news of the im­pend­ing ar­rival of “The Great­est Show on Earth.”

No, not the high- tech arena ex­trav­a­ganza of re­cent years, but the cir­cus— that three- ring trav­el­ing tent city that brought hun­dreds ( at one time thou­sands) of en­ter­tain­ers right to a city’s cen­ter, or the out­skirts of town, promis­ing ev­ery­thing from ex­otic an­i­mals ( when it was still po­lit­i­cally cor­rect to in­clude them) to the most dare­devil of artists, some ex­tremely ath­letic and tal­ented, some just, well, ex­treme.

And while other forms of cir­cus artistry have evolved, most no­tably the ul­tra- chic Cirque du Soleil, there is still some­thing to be said for a good old- fash­ioned fly­ing trapeze, tightrope bi­cy­clist, car­load of clowns or some­one jug­gling fiery torches.

En­ter “Cir­cus 1903— The Golden Age of Cir­cus,” run­ning March 21- 26 at the Ori­en­tal The­atre. Not a Big Top tent in sight ( though the il­lu­sion of one sets the tone for the pro­duc­tion), but there are some of the clas­sic acts of that Golden Age. And there are “an­i­mals”— specif­i­cally ele­phants, two glo­ri­ous, life­size beauties, thanks to the pup­petry of Mervyn Mil­lar ( his work was fea­tured in the Tony Award- win­ning “War Horse”) and the Sig­nif­i­cant Ob­ject com­pany.

“Our mother ele­phant is called Quee­nie, and her calf is called Karanga, which is Swahili for ‘ peanut,’ ” said Mil­lar. They’re made with an in­ter­nal frame of alu­minum for light­ness and strength, ac­cord­ing to Mil­lar, and the four pup­peteers inside Quee­nie and the one inside Peanut are strapped into the frames with har­nesses. It is a chore­ographed bal­let they have per­fected, to make the an­i­mals move as ef­fort­lessly their real- life coun­ter­parts.

“We wanted to cre­ate a nod to the gen­er­a­tion of per­form­ers who went be­fore us, who made the cir­cus what it was,” said “Cir­cus 1903” di­rec­tor Neil Dor­ward, whose other pro­duc­tions in­clude “The Il­lu­sion­ists” and “Cirque Le Noir.” “The show is set around 1903 be­cause that was the year when the most cir­cus menageries were tour­ing Amer­ica. There were small ones, large ones, some trav­eled by train, some by coach and horse.

“It was a very huge in­dus­try be­cause most towns didn’t have much when it came to en­ter­tain­ment choices. So this cir­cus would roll into town, and it was like the Olympics and the movies all rolled into one fan­tas­tic show.”

The first act of “Cir­cus 1903” re­volves around the ar­rival of the cir­cus, the rig­ging of the tent and the in­tro­duc­tion of the var­i­ous per­form­ers— a back­stage look at their world. Act 2 presents a tra­di­tional cir­cus, with a va­ri­ety of acts from a con­tor­tion­ist to a jug­gler, from a trapeze act to a teeter­board troupe.

“Peo­ple would dream of run­ning away with the cir­cus,” Dor­ward said. “They’d see the aeri­al­ists and dream of one day be­ing able to ‘ fly’ like that. Cir­cus sparked the imag­i­na­tions of young and old, and for a few hours, the au­di­ence could es­cape their daily lives into this mag­i­cal place. It sounds corny, but it was true. A hun­dred years ago, live an­i­mals were among the big­gest draw for a cir­cus be­cause peo­ple had never seen an ele­phant, tiger or lion up close. And then there was the pa­rade through town from the rail yards for the big­ger cir­cuses like Rin­gling Bros.”

The cir­cus was­more than a spec­ta­cle; it was an event. And Dor­ward hopes the stage pro­duc­tion cap­tures that ex­u­ber­ance. “We have amassed some of the best cir­cus per­form­ers in the world, some of whom­come from gen­er­a­tions of cir­cus artists,” he said. “What you’re see­ing is pure hu­man skill and tal­ent, and that truly touches the au­di­ence. You can’t help but be swept away.”


“Cir­cus 1903” harkens back to the turn- of- the- cen­tury cir­cuses that trav­eled across the coun­try­with a va­ri­ety of dare­devil acts, in­clud­ing the tightrope troupe.

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