Monday, December 30, 2019

141 (2019-2020): Review: 42 FT: A MENAGERIE OF MECHANICAL MARVELS (seen December 29, 2019)

“They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease”

There was once a time when saying “the circus is back in town!” was cause for universal celebration, as it normally happened only once or twice a year. While that may still be true in smaller towns, big cities nowadays normally host a variety of circus shows, large and small, many of those visiting New York showing up at the New Victory Theatre.

Battulga Battogtokh. All photos: Maike Schulz.
This fabulous Times Square venue, a beautifully renovated (in 1995) theatre that originally opened in 1900 as the Republic Theatre, is devoted to family (i.e., kid-friendly) entertainment, as perfectly represented by their latest offering, 42 FT: A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels. It’s the brainchild of the Las Vegas-based Cirque Mechanics (founded in 2004), which has produced three previous shows at the New Victory since 2008.

As circuses go, this is a small-scale one featuring a dozen performers in a traditional format almost entirely wordless. The smooth direction is by Chris Lashua, the choreography by co-director Aloysia Gavre, and the lively (prerecorded) score by Michael Picton, with a familiar oldy or two (like “Those Daring Young Men on the Flying Trapeze”) thrown in.  

Of course, in the tradition of the biggest of today’s big-top spectacles, Cirque du Soleil, there’s a theme of sorts (Steven Ragatz is the credited “writer”), or at least a through-line that binds it all together. This is the presence of an amiable clown named Justin Therrien, whose pointy hat and short pants suggest an adult Pinocchio. Wandering by a fence with circus posters, his curiosity is aroused. Soon, he’s trying to join the show.

Therrien is a terrific mime, doing marvelous, Chaplinesque things, like his bit with a suitcase that refuses to budge, or a gold sheet that takes on a life of its own. He can also gulp down a sword or create a micro-drama with no more than a feather. At one point, he gives the acrobats, aerialists, and strongman who occupy most of the performance a chance to rest by bringing an audience member on stage to join him in some amusing mimic business; the young dad selected when I attended proved a perfect comic foil.

But the show’s pulsing heart, naturally, resides in the remarkable acrobatics allowing the muscular cast to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, or the built-like-a-Mack-truck strongman to demonstrate not only superhuman feats of strength but do some fancy flips of his own. The latter’s name is Battulga Battogtokh, he comes from Mongolia, and he’s sturdy enough to place a huge pole across the back of his neck, and then, bent over, spin it around and around with two young ladies installed in the swing-like seats dangling from its ends. He also must have jaws of steel because he’s able to clamp his teeth around a bit attached to a double steel chain and give those ladies, holding on to the chain’s other ends, another dizzying ride for their money. And then there are those golden bowling balls . . .
Tatiana Vasilenko.
42 FT makes no pretense it’s anything but a circus, albeit one with a decidedly retro, old-fashioned aura, as witness Caroline Rogers’s artfully dated costumes, redolent of the 20s and 30s, like those in HBO’s “Carnivale.” Once that fence slides off, we’re in a traditional circus tent (designed by Sean Riley, and lit by Anthony Powers and Joe D’Emilio). The floor is occupied by a metal ring—its standard diameter of 42 feet gives the show its name—capable of being rotated to accommodate whatever mechanical contraptions need to be installed within it. Tying one side of the ring to the other is a large metal arch, which makes technical contributions to the action.

The several "mechanical marvels" include a revolving ladder and a Russian swing. The former is manipulated so that multiple performers can do gymnastic feats on it as it rotates up or down. The latter is used so that two or more performers standing on it can rock it back and forth to create enough centrifugal force to send someone flying nearly to the top of the high proscenium, doing one or more flips, and landing on a thick mattress, held slightly off the floor to soften the impact when their flying partner makes his or her rapid descent.
The revolving ladder.
If you’ve gone to enough circus shows, visited Las Vegas, or watch “America’s Got Talent,” you won’t see much here you haven’t seen before. These include a beautifully executed trapeze act starring Nikki Unwin and Elijah Newton, a terrific juggling routine with rubber balls done on a mechanical horse by Tatiana Vasilenko, a slack-wire number by Esther De Monteflores, a “lion tamer” piece (sans lion) in which Austin Bradley leaps about while snapping (Crack! Crack!) a bullwhip, and a variety of other familiar yet nonetheless awesome sets featuring daredevils Brysen Bishop, Brooke Neilson, Michael Rubino, and Taylor Stevens.

The “mechanical marvels” announced in the subtitle of 42 FT may not quite qualify as a “menagerie,” but its human marvels, flying, flipping, and flexing with impeccable flair, will flutter your heart, whether you’re under five or over fifty.  

New Victory Theatre
209 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 5