Though the crowd outside the ’62 Center’s Adams Memorial Theatre was small Friday night, when the doors opened, the Ringmaster appeared undaunted from where he stood just inside, waving a cane and shouting a never-ending stream of enticements and advertisements into the lobby. Inside, long strings of light bulbs were draped from the back of the theater to a mast in the center of the stage, emulating the seams of a giant tent and flashing from blue and green to red and yellow. On stage, a man in a tailcoat played the piano with his back to the audience, while those who happened to glance towards the window on the back wall spotted the waving hand of a girl in a voluminous glittering outfit. Before the show had even begun, the tone of Messrs. Minard & Wood’s Cartografickal Circus of, by, and for the Lost had already been established – whimsical, off-kilter and both fantastical and deliberately tawdry.
Created, written and performed by the College’s “Theatre 228” class, the performance was designed to explore the concept and implication of being lost and/or found. The group wrote in its program, “The class was inundated with readings and images, with conflicting ideas and lyrical notions of where we are and where we’re going – notions as old as thought itself, when the very universe seems to be a map of something maddeningly just out of reach.”
The circus show began with a frenzy of “unintentional” comedy which would characterize the entire first half of the performance – a clown accidently wandered into the spotlight, gave the audience a look of terror, and dashed away, the piano player got up while the piano continues to play and when the players posed in the spotlight at the end of the performance, someone was missing. Ringmaster Lars, played by Carl Whipple ’12, opened the show by speaking to the audience with a kind of irritable bravado, boasting about the circus’s performers as a unicyclist glided by (her feet on the ground) and the juggling duo began to toss (and drop) stuffed baby dolls. As the show progressed, the cast’s cleverly whimsical humor only became more pronounced. For example, several minutes into her depiction of a “normal picnic,” one performer suddenly took two shots and, after pulling out a wad of money and lighting it on fire, said pertly, “The only truly abnormal thing would be if nothing abnormal happened.”
At what Ringmaster Lars announced to be the climax of the show, the performers attempted to drag out the most highly anticipated attraction of the night, “Pierre the Fantastic Fire-Breathing Elephant.” An enormous rope was pulled into view of the audience, but suddenly there was a horrible sound from backstage and a clown emerged in a raincoat spattered with vomit, forcing the circus members to scramble for new acts.
Before this point, the show had been sprinkled with small references to the theme of “the lost”– in one short section, for instance, the performers wandered across the stage, one holding a GPS, others maps and one simply licking her finger and holding it out as if testing the wind. In the second half, however, the show plunged deeper into the murky realms of the lost, becoming somber and quiet. Shining out particularly in this part of the performance was a piece in which Boots, played by Cate McCrea ’13, tripped around the stage with the spirit of a child, stomping up and down the stairs backstage and imperiously commanding her helpers. Gradually, she stretched a net of colorful string across the stage and hung from it the pictures of two dancers before abruptly losing heart and tearing the whole thing down.
There were other moments in this second half of the performance which dragged; silences stretched just a little too long as performers walked or danced solemnly around the circumference of the theater (oftentimes invisible in the dark), and an ambitious debate about how to define being “lost” felt unsettlingly moralistic in contrast to the easy, inclusive humor of earlier sections. Nevertheless, the show ended powerfully with a spine-tingling final scene in which, accompanied by the murmurs of rising and falling bodies, Geek (played by Melissa Martinez ’15) twisted through the air on circus silks, putting a stunning end to a show which was not to be missed.