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Real-Life Make-Believe

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Invites Audience to Be a Part of the Show


Picture what kids do on a summer day: play Frisbee with the dog, mess with the cat, maybe watch some TV. If there are neighbors around, the little ones might drift into a game of "let's pretend," while the bigger ones try to one up each other with bike or in-line skate stunts or flying leaps off the swing set.

Cool enough. But what if one of the kids in question were Kenneth Feld, the engine behind the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and a host of other high-dollar, high-glitz touring spectacles? What if little Kenny--who happens to have a closet stuffed with fantastic toys and a Rolodex filled with amazing pals--invited you over to play?

Would ya go? Huh, huh, would ya?

Feld and company certainly hope so, and to entice playmates, they have put together one of their most interactive shows ever. The 126th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on the last leg of its Southern California tour, opens today and continues through Aug. 11 at the Pond of Anaheim.

The glitziest come-on that Feld is using this year is Airiana the Human Arrow. (There are two Ringling shows on the road right now; comic David Larible continues to headline the other one.)

In case you missed her streaking across the county on bus board ads, Airiana is the "Mysterious! Inspiring! Ethereal!" nymph who flies across the arena in the show's grand finale. Apparently she's so otherworldly that she can't be captured on film. Circus brass prohibit all photography of her and have severely limited media access to her.

The hoopla portrays her as beyond mortal, a time-traveling Romanesque goddess who, at Feld's invitation, is stopping by the 20th century with her gargantuan crossbow and army of overdressed minions just to Astound and Amaze us.

Her performance at the L.A. Sports Arena fell short of the hype. The reality is, although she is sprung from a giant crossbow and flies nearly the length of the arena at speeds up to 65 mph (sans helmet), Airiana--and the lengthy, cast-of-thousands production number that heralds her arrival--isn't the high point of the show.

What does distinguish this $7-million spectacle from the blur of past Ringling shows is the way the audience is invited to play along. In designing it, director-choreographer Danny Herman reportedly followed his 6-year-old nephew through a typical Saturday. To a large degree, the acts recreate that feeling of carefree playfulness, albeit with a lot more Spandex and derring-do.

Fittingly, the fun starts with some tube time. In the opening "Clown T.V." sequence, camera people, stationed on the arena floor, video clowns in the audience as they dance, mug and interact with the crowd; the images, intercut with crowd shots, are simultaneously displayed on huge monitors. All this is capped off with free play between the performers and the audience as they toss huge neon-bright inflated balls back and forth under black light.

Juggling troupes and a classic clowns-at-the-carwash bit follow. The latter features the clown "family" of veterans Tom and Tammy Parish and "Baby" Arturo Figueroa, who appear periodically in the show; Figueroa also is the instigator in a hilarious fractured fairy tale bit later on.

Animal acts seem to have a bigger role than usual in this lineup (surprisingly, none of the usual animal rights advocates was picketing the show at the main gate). In an especially kid-friendly move, Feld has added a canine Frisbee troupe that is energetic enough to play well even in a large arena.

On its heels: a comic horse act featuring a pair posing as tourists who come out of the audience to pose for a picture and end up performing some pretty amazing feats on horseback. (Little kids just may buy the ruse; the 6-year-old in my party was worried that these "tourists" might not find their way back to their seats.)


One of the show's most thrilling acts is horse-powered too. It's the Eshimbekov riding troupe from Kyrgystan, near China, whose heart-pounding skills include standing, turning, twisting and doing flying mounts and dismounts atop galloping horses, and a climactic moment when one horseman literally circumnavigates a racing horse from its back across its belly, past the speeding hooves and up its other side. Hard to say if man or beast is more relieved when that one's done.

Near the end of the first act, a conga sequence gives a few audience members a temporary starring role in the show, landing them smack in Ring No. 1, where they take in an act worthy of a kid's imagination and a dentist's nightmare: Samson of Kenya, a strapping fellow swathed in leopard skin, lifts and tosses items like tables--and one lucky bystander--with his teeth. It probably plays better to the audience in the ring than to those in the back of the arena, but kids no doubt will love its weirdness.

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