The circus is not dead. ‘Circus 1903’ proves that as it reflects on the past

Whether or not it was deliberate or coincidence, it was apropos that “Circus 1903” arrived at Hartford’s Bushnell the same week that Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. circus took up a residency at the XL Center down the road.

After more than a century of entertainment, Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. is shutting for good following the current tour. Producers have cited changing tastes, a new generation more interested in computer entertainment than a live performance, and a myriad of other reasons that seem to indicate the days of the circus are at an end.

But “Circus 1903,” which actually pays tribute to the heyday of circuses at the turn of the 20th century, gave resounding proof that the circus still has a future even as it mines age-old entertainment skills.

The conceit of this production is that it is a circus under the big top a century-plus years ago when the life of small towns ground to a halt as the residents watched the circus parade traipse through town and they filled the seats to watch acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, side show acts, and more thrill the young and old. “Circus 1903” pays tribute to a time when entertainment wasn’t available at a touch of a smartphone screen but you had to wait for it to come to you once in a great while.

There really was nothing on stage at The Bushnell that wouldn’t have been found in a circus in 1903. (Well, maybe the trick bicycle rider—which owed his stunts more to X-Games than the traditional circus arts.)

The key to all of the acts on stage, and what made them entertaining, is the performers were pushing themselves to the point where failure was possible. That sense of danger and anticipation kept you watching. Would the performers on the high wire come tumbling down? When the woman was tossed in the air 20 feet above the stage, would her partner be able to catch her wrists before she tumbled to the mat before? Would the performer balancing on free rolling cylinder above the crowd come crashing down as he lost his balance?

At “Circus 1903” there always was the possibility that it all could go horribly wrong… even if we knew in our hearts that all will be just dandy.

And that’s one thing the circus arts have over other art forms. The human beings before us are pushing the limits in real time and in a real world. There is no faking it, whether through computer animation or theatrical trickery.

One of the reasons cited for the demise of Barnum and Bailey has been the public’s growing distaste for animal acts, due to a concern the animals were being mistreated.

But really the entertainment value of the big beasts in action still holds.

“Circus 1903” handled this concern about animals by turning to puppetry.

The big elephant “Queenie” was actual a contraption operated by a team of puppeteers. And baby elephant, Peanut, was a puppet operated by one performer. The attention to the mannerisms and presences of these animals through these manmade creations was uncanny.

Now back to the future of circuses.

If the Bushnell performance is any indication, there is still interest in the entertainment provided by these performers. There were smiles and laughter all around from patrons old and young.

The world has changed and tastes may have changed. But the human adoration to experience thrills and chills remain. And there is nothing more scintillating than a live performance that reminds us of what men and women can do when they put their minds to it.

I give “Circus 1903” four out of four stars. It continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford today, Saturday, at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

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