The Brisbane-based Circa troupe was founded in 1987, but its current identity comes courtesy of director Yaron Lifschitz, who took over in 2004. A trained theatre director who “lacked the ability to tell stories”, Lifschitz was interested in wringing human insight and emotional juice not from drama but from circus: letting spectacle, prowess and presentation do the talking.
Wunderkammer, the company’s latest piece, shows the very mixed results of that admirable aim. Based on the idea of a cabinet of curiosities, this 85-minute work is a ragtag of scenes: some curios, some marvels, some junk. At the beginning, on a stage lit by a fringe of neon spikes, a woman in a cabaret costume hooks up with her hula hoops. She shows us both success (the orbiting rings turning her into a kind of showgirl Saturn) and failure (once in a while she drops a hoop, as if in resignation). The plaintive keyboard fugue that accompanies her turn gives the scene an air of melancholy introspection.
But, true to the assortment idea, none of these themes follow through. The next scene combines dive-bar striptease with gross-out effects: stretchy red strings dangle from noses and mouths like ropes of snot or phlegm, the performers making suitable hawking noises. Then there is a man with a tie and bib over his bare top, somersaulting away like an acrobatic Chippendale, and later a kind of moving Möbius strip made of two twisty women.
Some of these antics leave an unpleasant aftertaste: there is a lot of gratuitous striptease, and some unreconstructed showgirl burlesque. In one duet, the woman is a vacant sexbot; in another, she’s yanked around by her hair. Such scenes are served up with little insight, and the jokey delivery can feel like a mask for voyeurism.
The performers are impressively skilled, though, and shown to much better effect in more purely physical sections that depend fundamentally on strength, poise and trust. They balance one-legged on each other’s heads (the women sometimes supporting the men), they build three-storey towers of human bodies, they make catapults and skipping ropes of living flesh. One long sequence sees a woman spinning on a rope like an aerial dervish; when she descends, the others support her dreamy footsteps with their hands, shoulders, backs or heads, cushioning her from coming down to earth. Such intermittent wonders make Wunderkammer worthwhile.