Some times even the circus may not be a refuge
By Cynthia Citron
SHERMAN OAKS, California– Even three-quarters of a century later, the sight of a troop of Hitler’s brownshirts, their left arms emblazoned with a swastika band, can cause a chill in the most stalwart of audiences.
The setting is Germany in 1933 and the country is in turmoil. But the engaging performers of Ludwig Bricke’s small traveling circus are happily oblivious to the gathering storm. Very soon, however, they will learn that one can run away and join the circus, but sooner or later the real world will catch up with him. Or, to put it another way, “You can run, but you can’t hide!”
This is the premise of Jewish playwright/director Pavel Cerny’s Circus Welt (“Circus World”), a new (and deeply moving) adaptation of Leonid Andreyev’s earlier play, He Who Gets Slapped. The “He” in this instance is a former professor from “the Academy” who has abandoned his career after refusing to teach the “Aryan myths” being promulgated by Hitler’s propaganda machine. Without identification papers, without a history, and without a name, the erstwhile professor invents a niche for himself as a clown and persuades Herr Bricke to take him on. As a performer, he will act as a foil for the other clowns and become “He who gets slapped.”
Bricke (a superb John Moskal)’s ragtag group includes his Jewish common-law wife, Maria (an imperious Stephanie Keefer), who serves as the lion-tamer; Consuelo (Tanya Goott), the beautiful and innocent bareback rider (an “unpolished jewel,” as her father calls her); Bezano (Patrick Koffell), the handsome horse trainer and acrobat who is also a Communist activist; and Tilly and Polly (Justin Hertner and Lee Biolos), gay clowns who, in addition to providing music and merriment, serve periodically as commentators on the “real world” drama going on at the time.
There is also Count Mancini (Kurt Hargan), an impoverished Italian nobleman and a despicable toady, who is negotiating to “sell” his daughter Consuelo to Baron von Reinhardt (Ed Brigadier), the commander of the local Nazi Stormtroopers, who is enamored of her but has no intention of marrying her.
And then there is He, a brilliantly poignant Joshua Grenrock, a man with an air of desperation and a rubber face whose performance will leave you in tears.
Plus a bevy of other clowns, circus performers, and storm troopers (a full cast of 19 in all), most of whom, as Maria notes, “feel safe in the circus as long as we don’t bring in strangers.”
As befits this type of hand-to-mouth enterprise, the performers exist between acts in a seedy backstage setting designed by Walter Ulasinski. Their costumes, designed by Shayla Kundera, while not resplendent, are colorful and appropriate—especially He’s “”jester” costume in red and black topped with the traditional belled cap.
Although Andreyev’s original setting was Germany in 1914, the situation was, unfortunately, much the same in 1933. Cerny’s adaptation, then, strikes much closer to home in the pre-World War II time frame and adds an entirely new dimension to the proceedings. As carried out by this outstanding group of actors, “Circus Welt” is a theatrical experience that ought not to be missed.
But hurry! This world premiere performance of “Circus Welt” will run every Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 only through February 14th at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. Call 866-811-4111 for reservations.
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World