The Pan-Twilight Circus brings the Bard to the big top
by Bill Rodriguez
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
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
"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 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
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