The Big Apple Circus, the circus with a brain, is back in town for two weeks, and for that we should be grateful.
Unfortunately, "in town" is a generous description of where the company has pitched its beautiful tent, because this year it's in some place called Washingtonian Center, one of those new multi-use complexes that aren't convenient to anything but themselves. Off Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg, it's nearly an hour's drive from downtown on roads invariably clogged with traffic when you're trying to get to the circus on time and empty as a desert on the way back. Glen Echo Park, where the Big Apple normally parks itself, is still recovering from last year's floods, so we'll all just have to make do.
If you can get there, however, this year's production, "Ballerinas, Horses and Clowns, the Golden Age," is filled with delights and only a small amount of preciousness. With its single ring and intimate circular seating, this is still the best circus value in a country that normally thinks the bigger the better. Furthermore, there is (mostly) live music, instead of the recorded orchestras common under the bigger big tops.
Horses are featured heavily -- possibly because they are the specialty of the elegant Katja Schumann, wife of circus founder and director Paul Binder. She has the ingratiating presence of someone truly at home on a stage (she has been performing in circuses since age 10), and is assisted here by Susanna Svenson, a fairy tale blonde who dazzles all with her ability to jump up and down gracefully on the backs of two large horses. And in the second act, just when you think you've really had enough of the equestrian display, Svenson and her partner, Carlos Svenson, emerge from the audience disguised as a goofy middle-aged couple and spoof their own act with a hilarious slapstick version that is probably much more difficult.
I also found the trained pigs enchanting, having never seen pigs before who would jump through hoops. I suppose they are less beautiful than the horses and elephants and dogs, but no less charming, if you ask me.
The egg juggling by the clowns Oaf (David Casey) and Mr. Fish (John Lepiarz) is unexpectedly cathartic. They toss these eggs around as though they could catch them, with predictable results. At one point they thoughtfully raise a piece of plastic to cover the row of spectators that is in dangerous proximity to their antics. Why is watching an egg splat so funny?
For breathtaking artistry there are the two Panteleenkos from Russia, who do an acrobatic act using strips of strong tape suspended from the ceiling, and the Alexis Brothers, two extremely strong young men who can lift each other in astounding positions. For beauty there are the aerialists in butterfly wings (and a return appearance by the dear little pigs in their own butterfly wings), and a whimsical tightrope ballet by David Dimitri as a Petrushka figure (which goes on a little too long).
And for charm there is the Williams family of elephant riders, which features father Ben as the trainer, his wife Darlene on the big elephant Anna May, and 5-year-old Stormy on the little elephant Baby Ned. Stormy is a tiny towheaded girl who can sit with incredible aplomb on her elephant and also get carried around wrapped in Baby Ned's trunk. This is a shamelessly crowd-pleasing act, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. At the end, Baby Ned leads Stormy off, hand in trunk.
The only problem with this act is that your kids might start talking about running away with the circus. Or wondering why their parents couldn't be elephant trainers.
The circus runs through Sunday.