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Big-Top Woes:

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Django Salvatori’s Awe-inspring Death-defying Big Top Spectacuganza… Featuring Ralph!
6/16-19, 23-25, 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace St. • Tickets: $10-15
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Brendan Carter and Beth Raynor star in ‘Django.’ Courtesy photo, Richard Davis.

When one sits herself in a theatre, preparing to watch a play entitled “Django Salvatori’s Awe-inspiring Death-defying Big Top Spectacuganza … Featuring Ralph!” it’s easy to presume the show is full of gimmicks, tricks and gags. At least that’s what I expected: There can’t be much depth to a show with clowns, right?

 

Yet, local playwright Justin Cioppa managed to provide a definitive soul for each character, and the cast of this Guerilla Theatre production brings the inner workings of this kooky circus family to the surface. “Django” opens to the big top’s ringmaster, Salvatori himself, played by Brendan Carter. Set during World War II, the globe is already a rough place. Django’s once-upon-a-time successful circus has dwindled to a less-than spectacular crew performing for no more than five people and an icebox (although, I’m not sure how the icebox made it into the stadium; still, it makes for some great jokes). Lacking a solid audience, Django is facing foreclosure. He lies to his friends and lies to himself, but the place is losing money. Needless to say, he’s a pretty unhappy chap. Looking like a wily version of Hugh Laurie as “House,” complete with a cane and a limp, Carter developed Django’s sad demeanor flawlessly.

Django is joined in the opening scene by Barnes (Beth Raynor). Barnes has no part in the circus, despite her desire to become a part of the family, and is often referred to by the rest of the characters as a “vagrant.” She is proud, though. “I ain’t no vagrant,” she asserts. Nuisance or not, the girl has no home, and does what she can to stick around Django’s big top. She sweeps, offers to learn juggling and essentially barters into the audience any way she can. Barnes is the type of person that takes a mile if she gets an inch; she’s always backstage, talking to the clowns and trying to find an act she’s able to do. She’s rough yet has a big heart. She cares about the circus, Django (despite his orders that she stay out of his face) and the rest of the gang. Raynor makes her a lovable character, seemingly as Cioppa intended.

Interestingly enough, Barnes doubles as the narrator. She’s the best character to do so since she’s behind the scenes of the big top, getting the scoop on all the news; thus, letting the audience know everyone’s backstory. It’s a dynamic that lends her character’s trustworthiness. She might have some old thieving, vagabond habits, but when it comes to her friends, she’s honest and devoted. Think Jo from “Facts of Life.”

Then there is the absolute most despicable character of the script, T.C., the owner of the neighboring circus, who has stolen all of Django’s finer acts and ideas. Ironically, T.C. is played by director Susan Auten, whom was actually very friendly and polite during a phone interview last week. Neither of those traits would come within 10 feet of T.C. There’s a saying that a good actor will make the audience forget they are acting at all; Auten lives up to the adage. It wasn’t until after the show, even knowing who she was and having spoken to her, did I recollect that she was the player bringing T.C. to life.

With each sauntering, snake-like entrance from Auten, the tension rose. I found myself groaning and saying aloud, “Not her again.” T.C. brings nothing but bad news to the rest of the characters. She is a selfish, conniving, wicked woman. She’s the perfect villain. Even when she offers a bit of hope in the form of an act that may save Django’s circus, she still has something up her sleeve. Auten is convincing enough that the twists in Cioppa’s script can’t be foreseen. Every other character is so honest that we think for a moment T.C. may have a nice streak. We are wrong. How the story plays out, however, is Cioppa’s secret.

The cast list continues with Nick Smith and Amanda Young who play Murray and Agnes, the two clowns. Comically, they bicker back and forth, like an old married couple. They’ve got their own set of issues, just like the rest of Django’s circus. Murray is always questioning his funny factor, and Agnes often dreams of a life outside the big top. Through the course of the play, they find their true home—until the end, of course. It’s another one of Cioppa’s twists I’d rather not reveal.

Hank Toler takes over the reins as Dignon, the strong man whose weight-lifting has taken a dip after all the bad luck the circus has seen. In fact, the union demotes him to “relatively” strong man, an unimpressive title. Since Dignon’s talent is reduced, Django brings in Knives (Charles Auten), an almost-blind, non-English-speaking knife thrower. Dignon and Knives’ first interaction is side-splitting. Charles Auten presents Knives as a completely lost and confused, yet eager-to-please, foreigner. Toler’s interpretation of Dignon’s anxiety is a high-pitched, sweating-bullets kind of panic attack. This hilarious over-the-top acting only stops when he develops a true relationship with Knives, even neglecting a few accidental stab wounds. I’d venture to say the two become inseparable best friends.

The namesake of the show is played by Kameron King. Ralph has a mysterious history, and tall tales flow throughout the nation about his act and the tragic mishap that shaped his life. When Ralph arrives at the circus, which is King’s first appearance in the play, he’s late. He’s in a plain, gray sweatshirt and jeans. For his act, he pulls only three random, small items out of his knapsack, and it’s apparently all he needs. The circus crew and the audience figure he’s some sort of schmuck, and that Django’s circus is a goner. While through the show we find the truth about Ralph’s childhood accident and why he’s on the run now, we also learn how deep of a troubled character he really is. King brings a balance to the two ambivalent personalities he must portray. On the surface, he’s a kid with an indifferent, emotionless view of the world. Inside, he’s battling guilt, loss and fear—all which combat his desire to care for others.

Still, the show must go on. Ralph has developed a big top act so amazing, the members of the circus cannot find words to describe it, not even Django. Still, we, the audience, actually never see any tricks, other than Barnes’ measly excuse for juggling. Rather than detract, this adds to the development of the characters, and gives the audience a more furrowed brow about what’s going on behind the scenes. In the end, we’re reminded that we didn’t come to see a circus; we came to see a play.

Cioppa wrote a wonderful script with unexpected turns, flowery metaphors, and all the hyperbolic language expected of circus performers. He showcases the nuances of people, loss of faith and the resurgence of hope. My only complaint is that while we see every aspect of the characters, Guerilla Theatre didn’t provide the action the audience craves. Maybe it couldn’t, as it is a smaller venue. However, as far as the set goes, the stairs and levels within Browncoat Pub and Theatre work, but we’re still a product of technology. As unfortunate as it is, movies of this era have desensitized us. Guerilla presented Ralph’s act within a striped tent, which we view from the outside as a flashing light show with epic and confusing sounds. All the audience needs is more. If there is any way to make the sounds louder, even to the point of overwhelming, Browncoat should look into it. That’s what an act such as Ralph’s needs. Yet, the production is impressive, entertaining and moving. If only someone would donate bigger speakers.

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