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STRENGTHENING BONDS: ‘Django Salvatori…’ showcases the love of theatre, showmanship

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“Django Salvatori’s Awe-Inspiring Death-Defying Big Top Spectacuganza!… Featuring Ralph” is the latest outing by Keepin’ Up Productions.

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Most folks who love theatre first discover their desire through the want to run away and join a circus. Rebellion through performance appeals, even if just a fantasy daydream. Empty of all reason, artists often endure the unabashed willingness to castaway life on a fool-hearted dream. It’s a battle cry for independence—taking the first steps toward removing the chains of selfishness and believing in the concept that magic could in fact be real because art is alchemy.

“Django Salvatori’s Awe-Inspiring, Death-Defying Big Top Spectacuganza…featuring Ralph,” by Justin Cioppa, starring Steve Vernon. Photo Credit James Bowling

Sadly magic isn’t real, and in the midst of doing art, it feels less like alchemy and more like sleight of hand—a lame parole trick. But the phrase “The Show Must Go On!” exists for a reason. And it’s encapsulated so well in “Django Salvatori’s Awe-Inspiring Death-Defying Big Top Spectacuganza!… Featuring Ralph” (say that three times fast)—the latest outing by one of the newest players in Wilmington theatre, Keepin’ Up Productions.

It’s fitting this is the company’s third production, seeing how “Django…” is being staged in the Port City for the third time in over a decade. Written by former Wilmington playwright Justin Cioppa, it has long been a favorite of Keepin’ Up cofounder Susan Auten. In fact, she’s had a hand in bringing the production to life all three times in ILM. Auten sees magic in the story of the aged showman pulling out all the stops to save his circus and see the show go on. And when the trick is done this well, it’s easy for the audience to mistake it for real magic.

Directed by the “commander of comedy” himself, Robb Mann, the play may mask itself as a light-hearted romp at first glance, but when stripped down, a much darker, honest world arises. Its tone is in line with the tales of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. It speaks levels to Cioppa’s ability to capture a dated Americana vibe, while still telling a timeless story of people any generation can find relatable.

Audiences are welcomed by circus-like signs promoting and boasting what they are about to witness. It’s a solid touch to create atmosphere. They play works well with Mann’s set design; though minimum, it shows the viewer a behind-the-scenes look at the world. Donna Troy’s scenic design keeps it simple. The circus tent resembles the Chicago city flag (though, as a life-long wrestling fan, I couldn’t help but mentally chant “CM PUNK! CM PUNK!”). A mirror exists for the few stars the circus still has to use to get ready—a nice touch which gives just enough set dressing so say the stage isn’t bare.

Jeff Loy supplies routine lights up, light down. Artistic flair comes through with the mind-melting outstanding act of Ralph. But Stephanie Aman’s costume design really shines technically to set up place and time—from the top hat to Django’s (Steve Vernon) attention-grabbing, ringmaster red coat. Aman scores with the cheap knock-off of T.C. (Erin Hunter)—a former apprentice and now rival to Django. Even their top hats impress. And the clowns (Nick Smith and Shawn Sproatt) sport an adorable vagabond style.

While his name is embroidered all over the set, Django Salvatori isn’t the focal point of the story. It’s more about the acts. The audience enters through the eyes of Branes (Susan Auten, reprising the role she originated), a chipper vagrant who loves Django’s circus maybe more than Django himself. She wants to be a part of the show so much she’ll find any way to get behind the curtain of it. Wide-eyed, she’s happy to surrender to its wonders. There is an unpleasant history to Barnes but one that Auten doesn’t allow to define her character. She brings an earnest likability directly to the stage with Barnes; it’s endearing. Point blank: If a role has been written that Auten cannot play, she has yet to find it.

Stepping in as showmen of all showmen Steve “Hey Baby” Vernon encapsulates Django. The man knows his way around a role and a stage. He even presents a role within the role, playing the version of Django he the character himself wants to be seen as. He shines an unsettling light through the cracks that are forming within his own façade. His restless, worried eyes read of a man who has played himself so long, he has forgotten how to be himself. Perfectly, it embodies the sad reality that you can lie to everyone all day long, but you can’t lie to yourself forever.

Anthony Corvino scores laugh after laugh as the “Relatively Strong Man.” His whirlwind timing bounces between hysteria during scenes with a blind knife-thrower (Atwood Boyd) to  pin-dropped silence, as questions of his strength are put to him. Corvino certainly knows funny.

Boyd does enough with the silly if not small role of the non-English speaking knife-thrower. It’s mostly a sight gag, as he takes the path of least resistance in playing up the fact he is almost blind.

As the pair or wacky married clowns Murray and Agnes, Smith and Sproatt do a solid enough job presenting their characters on stage, yet sometimes they lack energy. Smith does his best Larry David impersonation, making more of an impression on the audience.

Hunter as T.C. doesn’t leave too much of an impression outside of needling Django and being the plot antagonist. PSL’s own Brett J. Young steps in for the mystery-shrouded Ralph and truly sums up that sometimes less is more. He takes short lines and really strikes comedy gold, like in his simply phrased, “I’m Ralph”—one of the biggest pops in the entire show.

Throughout the entire show, the cast bonds well to form a tight-knit sideshow family, each fighting for more than just themselves. They start out wanting only to save the little respite they share, but over time they can’t imagine a world without the show, without their peers … ­their family. What could sum up a life in the theatre better than that, really?

Keepin’ On has lived up to their name: The company keeps a light burning for those who love the show and for those who wish to run off and join it.

Django Salvatori’s Awe-Inspiring, Death-Defying, Big-Top
Spectacuganza … Featuring Ralph
Through July 7, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $20

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