“You won’t see that at Cirque du Soleil,” jokes one rubbery Circus Oz performer after a particularly silly piece of slapstick from industrious new show Steampowered. Well, indeed.
Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian magicians of franchised gymnastic entertainment, packed up its tent in May. They jump higher. Swing further. Balance longer. Take breath away from its audience with considerably more regularity. Which would only be a problem if these Aussie circus freaks were trying to emulate its style and success. Happily, they know their place.
Circus Oz is distinctly Australian in its bawdy mix of cabaret, burlesque and athletics. Cheeky and irreverent. Quite a bit political. With a wit as dry as a dead dingo’s … well, you know. And they do some pretty neat tricks, too. Steampowered is my first Circus Oz experience, and it proved a great introduction.
Its bygone theme — a modern circus act remembering its roots — is an excuse for Victorian-era garb and industrial-looking set pieces. But there’s a warming political agenda here, too, on environmental protectionism. Writes artistic director Mike Finch in the program: “A century ago the industrial steam-powered world was fuelled by coal, and the irony does not escape us that although we’re all iConnected and eBooked, Australia today is still powered by some of the dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the world.” When the lights go off to start the second act, and sassy ringmistress Sarah Ward (with impressive vocal ability to boot) declares an eternal brownout because we didn’t invest in renewable energy sources, the irony certainly isn’t lost.
In truth, the exposition isn’t really carried through. But Finch’s artistic vision is impressive, even if there’s nothing very cohesive about the rough narrative.
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No single trick takes the breath away, but there are some awesome spectacles: the skill of a candelabra juggling orgy, the strength of totem pole swingers, the precision of the high-flying aerialists, the agility of a very clever hula-hoop attack. And the stuff that’s just for laughs, like the inept magic men, riding a bike put back together the wrong way and self-styled Xanadu-inspired fitness guru Fantasia (the show-stealing Flip Kammerer).
The real trick of Steampowered — of Circus Oz, seemingly — is its ability to be both laconic and exhaustingly energetic. The sights and sounds (the live band and vocalists get the place swinging) and smells (popcorn!) add up to utterly charming entertainment, almost for the whole family (there’s some swearing here and there but nothing the kids haven’t heard before).
There’s a warmth that radiates through the canvass (and not just from the heating system, cosily accommodating on cold winter nights on the blustery banks of the Yarra River); a sense the entire troupe — from riggers to roadies, musicians and back-office staff; all had their ovations on opening night — knows they’re part of something a bit special. Certainly in this country. There’s a legacy of circus arts to uphold, and a commitment to community engagement close to unrivalled in the Australian cultural space.
Which makes it all pretty infectious entertainment.
The details: Steam Powered plays the Circus Oz Big Top at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne — tickets via Ticketmaster. The show tours to Mackay, Townsville, Cairns, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Launceston and Hobart until October — dates and details on the Circus Oz website.