This year the Sydney Festival brings the circus to the city. In fact, it has created a ‘Circus City’. On opening night (Friday 5th Sept) it was not so much a city as a Big Top but over the next few days I expect it’s going to grow at a rapid rate. Scheduled for Prince Alfred park (just across the road from Riverside Theatres in Parramatta) will be some free trampolining exhibits and performances coordinated by Legs On The Wall. There will be trapeze workshops, symposiums, forums and a series of circus acts. Top-billing is Circus Oz’s latest production Model Citizens and that is what we are here to see.

Model Citizens is a multilevel play on words. The setting is a world where the performers are all small (toy model sized) in a world of large scissors, safety pins, cotton spools and a giant pair of ‘Y’ fronts. All these objects are incorporated into the act or performed upon. The backdrop and band enclosure is a giant model-kit frame with ordinary objects ready to be pushed out of their suspension. But there is another meaning and it’s not subtle. Are they ‘model’ citizens? Are we? What better place to raise these questions and to highlight the need to work together as a community and not ostracise, than a circus troupe who need to work together and trust each other to create the perfect performance.

The show begins with a collection of frozen characters who awaken in a domino-cascade chain reaction. From here we find ourselves watching a haphazard collection of tumbles, twirls, summersaults and a multitude of acrobatic moves solo or in conjunction with other performers. It is here when you first become aware of the genius of Circus Oz.

There is a rough-around-the-edges feel to the acts. A ‘thrown together’ feel. But as you watch closely there is a perfectly timed choreography to the movement. Each performer arrives at the spot for the next trick at exactly the right moments and as one leaves a member of the troupe to do something else another member arrives in perfect timing to execute their next move. It’s highly calculated chaos and beautiful to watch. There is also a lovely Australian larrikan feel to the performances and the story.

One of the beautiful things about the Circus Oz production is that this is not a high tech, computer driven performance with a million-dollar costume budget. This is get-your-hand-dirty, rough and personal circus act. In fact, I was just as enthralled watching what I think was the show rigger scurrying up and sliding down a scaffolding ladder to the side of the stage as the counter weight for the performers as they rose into the sky and plunged towards the floor on silks or ropes. No computer-generated control, this is pure, performer skill and ensemble trust that drives the show. The perfect outcome of being ‘model’ citizens.

Throughout the show everyday objects are inventively incorporated into the acts. A giant peg becomes a springboard, a giant safety pin – vertical parallel bars. Each act becomes more interesting and edge-of-the-seat as the show progresses. The message of ‘outcasts’ in our society and the way we treat them came through strongly at the star and then at times throughout but was not a continual theme. Sometimes it was lost in the spectacle but it was always ready to pop back through in the form of a cynical song about casual racism or the great Australian BBQ.

Also refreshing was the reappearance of some classic circus tricks, the fire eater, straightjacket escapology and the knife thrower mixed in with the more modern additions of hula hoops and the silks. Not every act went according to plan on opening night (nor will it every night). Such is the nature of this sort of theatre and it reminds us of how real, and how dangerous this form of entertainment is.

Is there a standout? The multi strand hammock-shaped, slackline was thrilling and the super-sized credit card balance act was an edge of seat moment. Also impressive was the ensemble work on the suspended rope ladder towards the end. But all artists deserve a mention – Alex Weibel Weibel, Annalise Moore, Freyja Edney, Jake Silvestro, Jarred Dewey, Lachlan Sukroo, Mitch Jones, Rose Chalker McGann, Tania Cervantes Chamorro and Tara Silcock.

Laurel Frank‘s costumes were all beautifully designed and incorporated into the show and the band was fantastic. Ania Reynolds and Jeremy Hopkins plus one or two other musicians provided a non-stop soundtrack. Reynolds vocals were beautiful and she jumped and bounced around as she delivered some high energy sound.

This is a great night of entertainment for adults and children. Stand on the real sawdust, buy some popcorn and settle in for an entertaining, refreshing circus act with a strong message woven in. This is Rob Tannion‘s first outing as Artistic Director for Circus Oz. I have not seen any past performances but with this show to go by, I’ll be seeing more in the future.

Lynden Jones – Theatre Now & On The Town

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