The Circus Is In Town

The Yale Cabaret’s 44th Season ends this weekend with Carnival/Invisible.  Written and directed by Benjamin Fainstein and created by the Ensemble, it’s a show in some ways reminiscent of Church, the play by Young Jean Lee that was featured last semester.  Both shows riff on a collective, participatory experience, akin to theater but different from it, as usually practiced, in significant ways. Carnival/Invisible leans upon “Tent Chautauquas”—a traveling means of bringing entertainment and moral uplift to rural communities—the way Church leans upon sermons, homilies, and testimonials.  But Carnival/Invisible also draws upon time-honored tropes of the traveling circus in its more profane variety.  Thus we get harmless miming of carousel rides, and tightrope walking (Emily Reilly), and sword-swallowing, with, at the end, something a bit more sinister: a stab at a collective allegiance that advocates exterminating the children of one’s enemies.

The latter speech, delivered by Barker Masterful Majestic (Merlin Huff, charismatic in the red waistcoat and top hat of the classic circus ringleader), surfaces as a kind of dream fulfillment of the audience’s hopes and wishes, with Barker’s worshipfully submissive love, Dustbowl Diana (Hannah Sorenson) and the other participants voicing their approval.  The sentiments, for all their delivery of rosy uplift, are rather chilling and make one begin to question other bits of business, like the fable of the turtle who came out of his shell to a sad and horrific conclusion, or the jibes between the clowns Popcorn Peter (Chris Bannow) and Cotton Candy Cameron (Tim Brown) that become viciously scurrilous, or “the elixir” of goat’s piss, offered as a cure-all.

Performed on a simple clearing comprised of a dirt-colored figure of the flag reminiscent of one of Jasper John’s works, Carnival/Invisible seems to offer a mindless exploration of goodtime, oldtime America—the costumes by Nikki Delhomme are charming and lively, evoking familiar figures, the Barnum & Bailey clown, the saloon maid, the prairie flower.  And some of the skits are played with the skilled whimsy of Nickelodeon thrills, as when Death (Brandon Curtis) does-in two damsels (Whitney Dibo and Carly Zien), only to restore them to life as his paramours.  Through all the fun and games, though, there’s a kind of double vision, an acknowledgement that “panem and circensus” (bread and circuses) were the means whereby Roman emperors kept the hoi polloi happy with their yoke.  Fainstein’s show, capriciously carnivalesque, keeps us wondering about who gets the last laugh.

The show ends with the chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a spiritual about meeting after death in a heavenly realm.  The final verse, unsung, rings fittingly with the end of a dramatic Season: “One by one their seats were emptied. / One by one they went away. / Now the family is parted. / Will it be complete one day?

See you next year, with Season 45 under Artistic Director Ethan Heard.

Coming soon: my picks for the “best ofs” from Season 44.

Carnival/Invisible Created by The Ensemble (Chris Brannow, Tim Brown, Brandon Curtis, Whitney Dibo, Merlin Huff, Emily Reilly, Hannah Sorenson, Carly Zien) Written and Directed by Benjamin Fainstein

The Yale Cabaret April 12-14, 2012