With Ringling Brothers pulling up its tent stakes for good and the Big Apple Circus undergoing a lot of changes behind the scenes, it’s unclear when you’ll be able to see a bona fide circus in New York City again. For those of you looking to fill that elephant-size void in your heart (like my 12-year-old son and me; we’re big fans of the circus), Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus is an ambitious alternative from the team behind The Illusionists (aka the world’s biggest magic show) and the magnificent War Horse.
The two-hour spectacle is split into two distinct sections; one takes place before the circus “opens” to the public, while the second act takes you straight to the three-ring festivities under the big top. One minute you have workmen, played by Helsinki’s Flying Finns troupe, breaking out into high-flying stunts on the teeterboard, and the next you have the exotic Elastic Dislocationist, a seemingly spineless contortionist who folds herself in half and ties herself into knots on a circus wagon. Even familiar circus acts step out of their comfort zone to stand out from the crowd. Case in point: the Great Gaston, the adorable Parisian juggler who charmed the entire audience (me and my son included) with his speed juggling. I’ve seen jugglers toss and catch chairs, fire, and even chainsaws, but Gaston’s flying silver pins, moving at a rate of 265 throws a minute, kept both of us on the edge of our seats.
The biggest attraction, though, emerges at the end of the first act. The incredible mother and calf African elephants crafted by Significant Object (the design team and directors behind War Horse) steal the show while keeping animal rights activists at bay. This puppet pachyderm pair—made of moldable mesh and piping in Bunraku style—play with their trainers and ultimately hoist up the big top.
There isn’t a storyline or a plot, but Circus 1903 takes place in the heyday of the traveling circus. For kids who have no idea that troupes once crisscrossed the country by rail, this is a compelling way to introduce them to the classic concept of circus art. The show is in town until April 16, so this is the perfect activity to cap off spring break with the young ones.
Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus
The Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza at West 33rd Street
Through April 16, 2017
Tickets start at $39