[Sidebar] June 19 - 26, 1997
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High-flying magic

The Pan-Twilight Circus brings the Bard to the big top

by Bill Rodriguez

[Pan-Twilight Circus] The 99-percent perspiration is behind them, so Bob Colonna can take a moment to wipe his brow and think about the vital one-percent inspiration behind the Pan-Twilight Circus' inventive adaptation of The Tempest.

He describes watching a wire-walker in last year's show who was supposed to be a mayfly, dressed in pale blue leotard and filmy wings. She reminded him of Shakespeare's Ariel.

"And suddenly I went: `Boy!' " -- the word explodes -- "wouldn't that be interesting! Because The Tempest has to do with magic, and there is a clown and a drunken butler and a spirit called Ariel -- there are so many circus words in it! Plus it's about going away to a magical place, a separate place, an island."

Wearing a bill cap that says "RELAX," the adapter and director sat in the bleachers under the 90x 60-foot tent. Plastic palm fronds topped some of the 27-foot support poles around the set of Prospero's Magic Island, or A Tempest In a Big Top.

"When I get an idea, it comes to me in a big picture flash. None of which was realized," Colonna says dryly. "During the process, everything changes."

A terrific Tempest

The first thing he knew was that they would have to eliminate fringe characters and the whole political part of the story, about court intrigue in Naples and Prospero's rightful place as duke being stolen by his brother. That, Colonna points out, is "not very circusy."

Also soon to go was all of the dialogue of court jester Trinculo and drunken butler Stephano. "Shakespeare wrote some very funny situations and some very unfunny lines for these guys," Colonna says.

He was glad to see how willing the circus performers were to fit their acts to the characters and the story. Jens Larson, for example, usually did his balancing act with his wife, but now he had to rethink it. Successfully, as it turned out. They turned his high-up handstand blocks into magic spell "books" that his character, Trinculo, has stolen from the sorcerer Prospero.

Larson previous circus experience was in North Carolina. Two of the aerialists were imported from California, where they recently studied at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. Juggler Nick Goldsmith was found right here at Brown University, though producer Tom Sgouros says he would gladly have flown him in.

In his 21 years as artistic director of the the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre (TRIST) in Newport, until 1992, Trinity veteran Colonna was no stranger to strange adaptations of the Bard. As in staging The Merry Wives of Windsor as an English dance hall show. He has staged several of Shakespeare's plays as musicals, which he says was his approach to this one. "In a musical you have a little story and then you do a big number. In this case, instead of a song it's somebody going up on a rope and doing something or somebody balancing an impossible number of chairs."

In 1990, Pan-Twilight was created in Portland, Oregon, by former Rhode Islander Normand Johnson, who brought it here two years later. Producing the show for his third year is performance artist Tom Sgouros, who is also juggling and playing Ferdinand in this production. He ticks off a long list of circuses with traditional offerings, and then just a handful, from the amazing Cirque de Soleil to the quirky Pickle Family Circus, in San Francisco, where you never know what you're going to get. He puts Pan-Twilight Circus in the latter category.

Sgouros is still getting a kick out of relaunching the circus each summer, especially when he gives talented people minimal interference.

"What really makes the whole production work for me is when everybody in it has the room to do the things that they think are cool," he says. "Paige [Van Antwerp] wanted to figure out a way to play this musical saw that she's been working on, and Steve [Jobe] was gracious enough to expand his vision of the music to fit that in. A couple of the aerialists wanted to work out a new number, once they arrived. And rather than quash that idea, it was much more fun to let them go ahead.

"That's when real magic happens," he adds.

They both give lots of credit to Jobe, who wrote several new compositions for the show, and to Sally Mayo, who choreographed much of the movement, including an in-air pas de deux between Ferdinand and Miranda.

What does the future hold for the Pan-Twilight Circus?

Sgouros mulls that over. "I'm fascinated about the idea of storytelling and using this environment to tell a story," he begins. Indeed, as a solo performance artist he has told several quasi-biographical multi-media tales in recent performances. He says he would love to work the video and projection effects he incorporates in those shows into the circus. Another notion he has is to do a circus about doing a circus: "Sort of a Noises Off kind of a thing." He lights up most when he describes last year's circus, watching the shadow of a trapeze artist under a follow spot.

"It was really a beautiful thing," he says. "I'd be interested in a show that kind of turned that around, and maybe do the trapeze backstage where you don't see it and just have everybody look at the shadow on the ceiling."

Sounds like a Tempest under the big top won't be the last clever idea we get from these troupers. n

Prospero's Magic Island, or A Tempest In a Big Top will be performed through June 22 at India Point Park, Providence. The rest of their schedule is: June 25-29 at River Island Park, Woonsocket; July 3-9 near the high school in Lincoln; July 10-13 at the Southern Athletic Field, Summer and Vinal sts., Somerville, MA (617-628-8850); July 16-20, TBA in Cambridge, MA; July 23-27 at Crandall Field, Hopkinton; July 30-August 3 at Town Beach, Wickford. For further information, call 351-4242.

A terrific Tempest

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