Fringe Review: Circus Fire

Some sparks but no flame from Atomic Vaudeville

Circus Fire is a very bold theatrical endeavor; four actors provide all the characters – circus performers, animals and audience – that populate a performance “chronicling the 1944 Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus fire that claimed 168 lives.”

Working with a simple, elegant set comprised of three backdrops suggesting the circus tent and working imaginatively amongst the audience, the Atomic Vaudeville company pares this huge tragedy down to a story of a small girl (runaway?), a mother and son and an injured soldier, all trapped in the tent that caught fire in Hartford on July 6, 1944. The WWII context of the story is well presented and the portrayal of little Donald, his father away at war, and his mother is touching and quietly comic.

The story begins with a young girl listening to the railway tracks, playing with a toy circus and then excitedly reading a found poster for the circus. The acting here is light and playful and we return to the girl throughout. As her poster blows away (a nice touch), the stage is transformed into the circus – we see elephants, various circus performers and, lastly, the Big Top going up. It is here that the show begins to reveal its problems. While the movement is reasonably precise, it is neither dynamic nor dramatic enough to provide the thrill and excitement of the circus and does not drive the story forward or enhance the atmosphere. There is only so much time that we want to watch four actors being elephants, horses or big cats – it begins to look like actors in workshop. Likewise, the clowning often falls short, with the clowns not developed enough individually and not given enough space in the performance to work this exceptionally difficult technique. Unfortunately, these shortfalls make it impossible to really feel the immense tragedy of the story; it is difficult to engage as we watch the actors attempt to physically portray the chaos and panic in the tent as the fire rages.

The Atomic Vaudeville performers are impressive at times in their inventive theatrical transformations and ensemble play and the actor playing Donald’s mother is outstanding throughout. Circus Fire, however, needed to combine their light playfulness and obviously rich creative skills with a more forceful physicality and depth of story to do justice to its content.

Circus Fire
Atomic Vaudeville/Janet Munsil
Divadlo na Pradle, until 3.6, 21:00

Video on YouTube

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