Smile Politely

Circus, Oz

It’s likely you’ve been to the circus at some point in your life. I mean, I don’t know you, personally, but if I were to say the word circus, you’d probably be able to conjure two or three mental images from your past. I myself once rode on the back of an elephant.

Whatever your idea of the circus might be, however, I would stipulate that, if you want to see the circus in a whole new way, you should see it with a five-year-old.

This past Valentine’s Day, I spent about 60 minutes sitting next to my daughter during a full-out, mind-blowing performance by the brash and brilliant troupe known as Circus Oz. Over the course of this frenetic hour, I got to see extraordinary feats of tumbling and juggling; I got to see acrobats with nimble, feline grace; and I got to see tiny ladies who could probably lift me over their heads. But most important of all, I got to see the look on my daughter’s face while she saw all of this.

As we witnessed the various stunts presented by the troupe’s diverse and gifted ensemble, it occurred to me that there are plenty of ways to entertain a child, but most of them pale in comparison to the immediacy of live performance. From the opening call-and-response of the show’s ring-mistress (Candy Bowers) to the surreal juggling of Olivia Porter; from the sight of a larger-than-life Scott Hone (the modern-day equivalent of the old-school strongman) spinning BMX tricks on a grade-schooler’s bicycle to the elegant aerialist stylings of performers Sharon Gruenert and Spenser Inwood—this was wall-to-wall entertainment. And to see the children in the audience engaging without a shred of inhibition was truly inspiring.

On the topic of the call-and-response, I feel compelled to relate the unbelievable joy I experienced when Ms. Bowers exhorted the audience, “When I say ‘Circus,’ you say, ‘Oz.’” There followed, of course, the voices of the entire house chanting “Oz!” over and over again. My daughter was utterly delighted by this; beside herself, really. You see, her name is Oz. She turned to me, after the MC had moved on to the next chant, and the smile on her face was brighter than the lights on stage. She was literally on the edge of her seat for the entire program.

But I digress.

Circus Oz boasts some truly amazing acrobats, musicians, and dancers. As I type the word amazing, it seems too little. Even with full knowledge that these are professionals who have devoted their lives to honing their skills and strengthening their bodies beyond normal limits, I still sat in awe of the physical feats before me. It’s one thing for someone to be able to ride a unicycle, for instance. Not a regular, “Wednesday morning, there goes Jeff on his way to work” type of thing, but still. But to be able to ride a unicycle with the skill, grace, and humor that Kyle Raftery does is admirable. Or to be able to demonstrate tumbling with the kind of core muscle control displayed by Matt Wilson, who then immediately jumped into the troupe’s small backup band and shredded on electric guitar…? That’s more than amazing. That’s practically superhuman.

Speaking of superhuman feats, I must here highlight a standout member of a group chock-full of standouts. Described in her bio as “a mixture of Jessica Rabbit, Lucille Ball, and Tank Girl,” Lilikoi Kaos (pictured, right) brought the house down with an act involving humor, precision, and serious muscle control. By the time her stint on stage was over, she was spinning no fewer than 50 hula hoops around her body. Needless to say, it brought the house down, and this was only the 20-minute mark.

The mission of Circus Oz, now going strong after 30 years of operation, is not simply to entertain — although that would certainly be a worthy enough goal. In addition, they also seek to inform and enlighten, weaving into their madcap big-top-meets-Vaudeville a message about life and its struggles. In the current incarnation of the globetrotting circus, titled “But Wait…There’s More,” they speak out on consumerism and materialism, cautioning the audience at various times to “do more” and “want less.” And while the message of peace and respect over greed might go over the heads of the youngsters in the crowd, it’s worthwhile for all to hear.

It is not usually my habit to review something after it has already come and gone. It’s great to offer a critical response, surely, but it’s also important to make sure that people still have time to rush out and see the fantastic thing I want everyone to see. In this case, though, it seems necessary to make sure that, if you weren’t lucky enough to catch Circus Oz on its 2015 trip to Champaign, you most definitely need to plan ahead for their next visit.

If you have a five-year-old in your life, plan to bring him or her as well. That way you’ll see two once-in-a-lifetime shows for the price of one.

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