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When Theatre Won't Help

August 15, 2011

One thing that I am appreciating as I delve deeper into the worlds of magic, vaudeville and circus, is how much of a difference the ingredients of theatre -- most obviously, narrative and character -- make to what would otherwise probably be no more than skillful parlor tricks.

If a magician (or a circus performer) can find ways to build stories around their illusions and feats of physical prowess, the effect is often much more compelling. This, of course, is not a revelation. Cirque du Soleil's success since the 1980s has been built on combining extreme technical prowess of one kind or another with lavish narrative, scenery and at least the outlines of character.

There are times, however, when the ingredients of theatre simply don't work. I've sat through several Cirque shows in recent years (most notably, Ovo) and completely failed to connect with the art happening before my eyes despite all the ingredients mentioned above being in place.

On Thursday night at Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco, I had a similar feeling. Efforts were made to put a theatrical spin on the various illusions, bits of clowning and circus performance, but the theatrical elements and circus/magic arts were ill-matched. The overall effect amounted to an incoherent jumble of mini narratives surrounding mostly mediocre technical artistry.

This was in stark contrast to the last Zinzanni show I saw, the Latino-infused Caliente. Directed by Culture Clash's Ricardo Salinas, that production perfectly balanced engaging theatricality with awe-inspiring circus arts.

Alas, the two sides did not combine well in this latest Zinzanni show, Maestro's Enchantment. It was as if the director, Norman Langill, was trying to force each trick into an ill-fitting theatrical shell.

At one point, the ascetic illusionist Yevgeniy Voronin and Sventlana, a contortionist, engaged in a fanciful and long-winded pantomime all about the animation of a mechanical doll. There was a disappearing act illusion involved, but the expansive theatricality seemed out of proportion compared to the slightness of the magic trick.

In the best part of the evening's entertainment, Elena Gatilova performed a spell-binding ballet on a hoop hanging from the roof of the tent. Her performance was one of the most sensual acts of its kind I've ever seen owing to the serenity of the movements and the performer's beautiful physical lines. I was so captivated that I forgot about the silly narrative frame that surrounded Gatilova's hoop act -- something about her performing for a random guy in the audience as a way to impress him and win his heart. But Gatilova didn't need a theatrical frame to draw us under her spell.

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