Circus murkus

UMO's new show is big and bold, but what does it mean?

I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but for me, 1999 is turning out to be the Year of Disappointment. Time and again it appears that the forces controlling the Hype Machine have perfected the means of capturing our attention at precisely the moment they've forgotten what to say. From Star Wars to the impeachment, this has been a year of sound and fury signifying very little, and I've got the sneaking suspicion I'll be feeling the same way about Y2K on January 1, 2000.

Millennium Circus

Sand Point South Hangar Bldg #2

ends Sunday, August 15

But I never expected to encounter this feeling with the UMO Ensemble. For the past 10 years, this company has routinely provided great art that is at its root contradictory. We've had its inhuman group of gargoylish Buffoons who ideally express human failings (The Insatiable Cabaret and that potted history of the Conquistadors, El Dorado); the sprightly Djools, who explicate Hesse's philosophical retelling of the Buddha through acrobatics (Caravan of Dreams); and even last year's Expressions of the Spirit, the gloriously playful retelling of Grimm's Fairy Tales, which captures the complexities of adult behavior while remaining ideally suitable for children. So when UMO announced that it was planning a show that would articulate the vague fears and anxieties we all feel about time and the millennium, and do it in a vast disused military hangar, through a show that included trapeze work, bungee jumping, clowning, fire spectacle, and the trappings of an honest-to-God circus, well, can you blame me for thinking the troupe could pull it off?

What's funny is that UMO does deliver just about everything that it promises. There's original music and a kickin' house band (Oto Prota, who play on cello, tuba, guitar, erhu, french horn, keyboards, and sundry other instruments); there's an angel who glides far above the crowd with flaming wings; there's a dance sequence choreographed with gas masks, bicycles made up to look like beasts from Revelation; clowns, speeches, gorgeous sets from Mattthew Skenadore that evoke everything from Gaudi to Dr. Seuss; and a finale that has white-suited performers bouncing like yo-yos on and off a set of trapezes. True, the acoustics of the hangar are awful (even with body mikes), the audience is shepherded about from one set to another more times than is necessary, and the sight lines leave much to be desired. But these aren't the real problem.

The real problem is that UMO's left out the reason for doing all of this.

WHAT SORT OF ties together a bunch of the actors' New-Agey speeches is the story of Katie (Jennifer Cohen), a slacker grrrl who needs to be convinced that the millennium has any sort of significance whatsoever. But really Katie's just the audience's sounding board by proxy, a half-character who's supposed to be influenced by the arguments of such characters as Toad (who tells her that nothing's going to happen), Sadie (who tells her that bad things are going to happen), and Mr. Mann (who tells her that whatever is going to happen, she's not ready for it). Somewhere towards the end Katie dies, or passes out, or in some other fashion is taken via a funeral procession to a very neat contraption called a Cloud Swing, where she does a very credible imitation of a circus trapeze performer.

In fact, the entire company does a very credible imitation of a circus troupe, but one can't help knowing that it's an imitation and not the real thing. As to why these troupers should choose to impersonate circus performers—who, while highly skilled in particular stunts, lack the smarts, creativity, and inventiveness that UMO's members have routinely expressed in the past—I have no idea. Perhaps, like so many other folks in this annus insipidus, they've worked so hard at exploring the method of attracting our attention that they haven't taken the time to ask themselves precisely what they want to say.

 
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