Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu in Big Apple Circus. (Photo: Juliana Crawford)
By April Stamm
High flying abounds lately. Through Broadway ventures (check out the dementors in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), off-Broadway spectaculars, darling and poignant children’s pieces (Machine de Cirque at The new Victory) and even amateur “work out routines” circus-style performance is having a heyday. In the midst of all of the trapeze, acrobatic and clowning fervor, you’d think that an actual circus in its 41st performance year would be at the pinnacle of the trend, what everyone else is aspiring to achieve. This year’s presentation of Big Apple Circus, currently at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, pales in comparison with a lot of what’s happening in the circus art trend.
Describing itself as intimate and artistic, Big Apple Circus boasts a one ring setting, making seats all within 50 feet the action while still giving a lovely air of wonder in a tent. They’ve amped up their food and drink selections this year in their “Hall of Wonder.” Amongst the photo ops and mini-activities are classic circus bites with a spin and cocktails crafted by three-time “American Bartender of the Year” nominee Pamela Wiznitzer.
The set up is classic circus, individual acts including trapeze, acrobatics, juggling and animal acts are introduced by Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu, peppered with bits from clowning duo Mark Gindick and Adam Kuchler.
One of the bright highlights of the performance is Gindick and Kuchler’s take on the circus clown. While there are no tiny bicycles or clown cars, the two funnymen take classic mime and clowning work and give it a modern and engaging spin. Starting with what seems to be merely a clever “turn off your cell phone” bit, Gindick’s regular joe character wanders into the ring in his suit with briefcase in tow, Kuchler chastises him, and the two bond and Gindick learns the ways of clowning. It’s all done with that kind of befuddled precision that only excellent clowning can accomplish.
The acts themselves are performed with skill, but something lacks. Perhaps in this era of circus mania, there is too much good out there which makes comparison inevitable. The acts, while executed entirely as planned, lacked an apparent degree of difficulty. Bars seemed literally set low, juggling came off without a hitch but wasn’t gasp-worthy. What was really missing, however, was heart and storytelling. Other acts that have toured recently both big and small like The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts) and Machine de Cirque are able in their high flying to craft not only a well-told story but also explore emotion and relationships. Big Apple Circus acts like Spicy Circus (wall trampoline) and The Flying Tunizianis (flying trapeze) did what they set out to do, but needed to set their goals higher.
Most disappointing in this year’s circus is the much talked about new Ringmaster, Stephanie Monseu (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, co-founder). Her resume touts a lot that we simply do not get to see. Although she has a background in not only mastering ceremonies, but also, fire eating, stilt walking, and sideshow skills like bed of nails and glass, in her gig at Big Apple Circus all we get to see her do is march confidently into the ring a handful of times to very briefly announce the entrance of a new act. There is no connection to the audience or to the other performers. We do not find ourselves either amazed or engaged in her or her personality.
All and all what we truly miss in this ring is heart and connection. When so many other talented troupes and performers have made this terrifying and vulnerable leap, it’s a shame to stay on the ground.
Big Apple Circus
Lincoln Center Damrosch Park
137 W. 62nd Street
Through January 27, 2019
April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center. Follow her on Instagram at @aprilstamm.