Clowns, jugglers, mimes tap vaudeville's rich vein of silliness

January 15, 1995|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Although there's a lot of clowning around at Towson State University, there's no need to become alarmed about declining academic standards. This is officially sanctioned funny business.

Clowns, jugglers, mimes and all sorts of other movement-theater folks are converging on TSU for the sixth annual Mid-Atlantic Movement Theatre Festival, running through Sunday. Kicking off the exquisitely choreographed silliness is the one-ring, San Francisco-based New Pickle Family Circus. It'll perform a movie spoof titled "Jump Cuts!" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Stephens Hall Theatre.

There is a definite method to the festival's comic madness. These performers come out of a "new vaudeville" movement that, during the past 20 years, has been reviving the circus, vaudeville and sideshow routines that withered at mid-century.

Founded in 1974, the Pickle Family Circus was an early champion of the cause. Early company members included such now-celebrated clowns as Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle. Run as a near-collective, the troupe took its modestly scaled shows to little towns where no circus had ever performed. And it helped pave the way for public acceptance of such small circuses as New York's Big Apple Circus, the Canadian Cirque du Soleil and the Australian Circus Oz.

Just don't go to a new vaudeville-spawned circus like the Pickle Family Circus expecting lions and tigers and bears and technology-enhanced spectacle. This is old-fashioned, small-scale fun that relies on nine performers and a four-piece band. And there are no animals at all, making this a circus that even animal-rights advocates can adore.

"It's a theatrical circus," explains Jeff Razz, a Pickle company member, who goes professionally by just the name Razz. "I've always loved the idea that we combine the circus, theater, music and dance. I feel we're defining them."

He says most contemporary theater relies too much on the psychological realm and not enough on what the body has to say. By supplementing age-old circus skills with theatrical elements, Razz says, the Pickles can really present "human beings and their silliness. One of the great things about a circus is that it's very accessible. Audiences understand it everywhere."

Until now, however, "everywhere" hasn't encompassed Baltimore. The Pickle Family Circus is making its much-belated Baltimore debut, thanks in part to a family connection. It turns out that TSU dance department chair Karen Kohn Bradley is Razz's cousin. Ms. Bradley was unaware of the relationship until she attended the Flying Karamozov Brothers' very loose interpretation of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" at New York's Lincoln Center in 1987 and was startled to realize that one of the performers was a cousin she hadn't seen for 20 years.

That both of them had pursued careers in movement theater is something Ms. Bradley attributes to "a little regressive gene in my family."

Razz, 37, received his training as an actor and juggler. A Pickle for three years now, he has had roles that have included a starring turn in "Tossing and Turning," in which he plays an insomniac ringmaster confronting everything from a parade of alarm clocks to a pillow ballet.

The choreographic impulse in recent Pickle productions can be attributed to modern-dance choreographer Tandy Beal, now in her third season working with the circus. She's also directing the new piece they're doing at Towson -- "Jump Cuts!" -- a movie-genre romp in which a couple with Hollywood aspirations, Razz and Pino (Diane Wasnak), suddenly find themselves immersed in a western, a detective story and a musical.

Razz acknowledges cinematic influences for this show, ranging from Buster Keaton's 1924 "Sherlock, Jr." to Woody Allen's 1985 "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

"So many of these images are part of the bedrock of America's iconography," Razz says of the ease with which audiences will be able to follow Razz and Pino's reel-world adventures.

Razz also looks ahead to further adventures in his own career, as the new vaudeville movement finds ways to remain fresh.

"We spent the 1970s and '80s rediscovering the [circus and vaudeville] forms that were lost or ignored in the highbrow theater world. We rediscovered them and made them our own. I know where I'm going now, which is towards working with more ideas and more text."

Other festival highlights include:

* Fred Curchack and Daniel Stein's "Abel and Cain: A Biblical Debacle," a world premiere, at 8 p.m. Saturday on the TSU Fine Arts Center's Mainstage.

* "What Fools These Mortals Be (Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Re-visioned)," a one-man show starring Mr. Curchack, at 8 p.m. Friday on the Fine Arts Center's Mainstage.

* Miscellany: shows by two other groups, Foolsproof and Mimely Yours; workshops; and a matinee performance of "Jump Cuts!" for Baltimore City and Baltimore County public school students.

0$ Call (410) 830-2787 for details.

ONE-RING CIRCUS

What: New Pickle Family Circus

Where: Stephens Hall Theatre, Towson State University

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Tickets: $25 for the Tuesday performance, which is a benefit for Dance on the Edge; $15 for the Wednesday show; $12 for senior citizens, TSU faculty, staff and alumni; $10 for full-time students with valid ID

$ Call: (410) 830-2787

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