Cirque Berzerk and the simplicity of spectacle


There is something gaspingly lovely about seeing a girl in a striped panty being swung through the air at the end of a piece of fluttering silk. That lust for loveliness is what animates Cirque Berzerk, currently doing an extended run at the Los Angeles Historical State Park (aka 'The Cornfield") downtown. It is a show rich in symbolism, humor, and also pays noisy heed to a Weimar/Goth/Cabaret ethos. That stylization makes it both visually arresting, and also, at times, a tad predictable. It's Big-Top-Cabaret-meets-Crazy-Girls-via-Burning Man. But you know what? I'm just a sucker for that stuff.

I got my tickets for the show over a month ago, but after reading Reed Johnson's wonderful piece in the Times, I realized why I had to see it: I am hopelessly addicted to non-traditional theater, to spectacle, to the sweet, high note of visual affect and the romance and wide-open possibility of the stage.

In his piece Johnson traces the blossoming of alternative theater in Los Angeles, citing Highways Performance Space as its birthplace in 1988. I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1988, flush with the excitement of having worked with the nascent Blue Man Group in New York. I had met two of the three Blue Men at a catering gig. They tossed goat cheese across the length of the service area, catching it in their mouths, and thus an act was born. That night on the bus ride back into the city, Chris Wink dabbed blue paint on my face and explained the concept to me. I can't say I understood it completely at the time, but what I did understand was his excitement. I watched them develop "bits" over time for their show "Tubes," lending my voice for a bit about fractals, helping them mount their early show at La Mama. Johnson points out that Blue Man now headlines a flashy show in Vegas. With success came added production extravagance. But they didn't need it. What made Blue Man Group magical was the cheese-tossing, the hilarity of a Twinkie being opened with a circulating saw, the innocence and wonder of these strange fellows experiencing our even more strange, everyday world for the first time. Often, while developing bits I would hear Chris say, "I'm not sure what this means, but let's do it just because it looks so cool." It was that sense of play that made their shows such fun for so many.

I came to Los Angeles in 1988 an out-of-work actress looking for art and community.

I read something about Highways in the LA Weekly and headed over there one day. I knocked on a random door at the 18th Street Arts complex in Santa Monica and was welcomed into that newly-hatched community by Jill Burnham, daughter of Linda Burnham, co-founder of Highways. I immersed myself in their world, writing and performing my own pieces, and offering myself up for roles in other artists' works.

In 1989 a young, female, investment banker jogging in Central Park was "Wilded" and left for dead. Keith Antar Mason recruited me to play the victim in his piece "Prometheus Against a Black Landscape: The Core." It was a rigorous, exhausting piece that explored that terrible moment of violence, and I allowed myself to be theatrically savaged by a group of men before a horrified audience. What I remember most vividly about that piece however, was not the violence, but a moment when a beautiful young man came out on stage in full Billie Holliday drag and sang "Strange Fruit" acapella. It was simple, haunting and heartbreaking -- communicating the entire essence of Antar-Mason's feeling about the Central Park tragedy: that racial violence is reciprocated across eras, its half-life incalculable.

There were other acts of beauty and daring I witnessed at Highways: the giddy, brilliant John Fleck, nude but for an open, flowing robe, his penis tucked between his legs, singing a mad, fevered operetta. Less lovely, but even more daring was Karen Finley notoriously smearing her body with chocolate and bean sprouts. I peered through a speculum at Annie Sprinkle's cervix and watched Tim Miller lay claim to his queer identity in a half dozen pieces that used only his body and his words to convey the full tumult of being gay in AIDS-ravaged, homophobic America. This was not voyeurism; these were people identifying themselves at a time when non-traditional voices had little outlet in the mainstream theater world. All of it was done with minimal overhead. I myself performed a piece with nothing but two chairs I had painted red, another with a cardboard box.

Los Angeles has offered many other moments of artful transcendence. It was through UCLA Live at the Freud Theater that I saw Robert Le Page's masterful piece "The Dark Side of the Moon," a piece so simple and magical that it made me convulse with tears. I will never forget the final image of the show: An astronaut floating in space. The effect was rendered by the actor gyrating on a black floor, reflected in a wall of mirrors behind him, making it look as though he were truly in orbit. More recently, "Aurelia's Oratorio," also at the Freud, delighted with its magical, childish charm, using dresser drawers and pieces of fabric to create extraordinary illusion and illustrate bold notions about imagination and innocence and the limitless power of those two qualities working in conjunction.

The hallmark of all these shows is their almost homespun simplicity. Today's LA Times reports an LA City Council has issued a 30-million loan to the owner of the Kodak Theater so it can be retrofitted to accommodate an extravagant Cirque du Soleil production. I am a hardcore, trapeze-studying circus freak, and will no doubt make my way to that show when it opens in 2011, but you know what? We don't really need it.

Cirque Berzerk does everything Cirque du Soleil does, but on a shoestring. There are many reasons to go see Cirque Berzerk: the party atmosphere that surrounds the tent, complete with beer and vintage pinball machines rigged for free play, the giddy spectacle of "Burners" in their glad rags, dancing to a techno-beat at the show's halftime, the enormous flame-thrower that spews hot, explosive light into the night air, signaling the end of intermission.

But in the end it is the satisfaction of pure spectacle as made by human hands and unfettered imagination that makes Cirque Berzerk so brilliant. In one act a group of brothers fall off the top of a high wall and only to bounce and somersault off trampolines and return to the precipice unharmed. Or two men, so taken by their forbidden love for each other that they are literally yanked off their feet and high into the air to do a suspended dance of love. For me, the high point was an acrobatic duet between a drowned sailor and his ladylove. It was the ageless drama of a man and a woman in love, played out with nothing but their bodies. He was huge and muscle-bound; she was a tiny sylph, clothed in a seaweed-like leotard. He brought all his strength to bear on her supple body and she climbed his dizzy heights with passionate abandon. At one point they lay down on the floor together, chest-to-chest, and he lifted her up and horizontally forward. She hung for a moment, stretching her arm in front of her, embracing the air, becoming the figurehead of his downed ship. No rigging, no special effects. Just the artful answering of the soul's call for sheer, heart-stopping, tangible beauty.

Cirque Berzerk closes August 9th. Tickets: (866)55-TICKETS

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