This review originally appeared on www.australianstage.com.au
Walking into the Spiegeltent is always a somewhat magical experience. Under the canopies held within the confines of mirrors and wood and stained glass windows lies an otherworldliness that Adelaide only becomes privy to during the festival season.
Cantina has taken this magic and transformation to another time and place, expanding it ten-fold. The depression-era inspired design elements seem to take the audience into an old classic seaside circus venue: Brighton, Coney Island.
Seemingly shiny and happy, the joyful and playful opening acts – including tightrope walking in stilettos and Jazz-Age tap routines – give way to a much darker underside of the era the show emulates, and the circus tradition itself. Cantina doesn’t carry with it a can of gloss-paint to cover over the pain: pain and strength and sex of its players are played out right in front of our eyes. The six performers create a circus which is as sexy as it is vicious, in a series of acts unconnected except in characters and an ever-darkening throughline.
The performers repeatedly astound. Henna Kaikula seems not so much to be double-jointed, but in fact lacking joints at all, as she twists in delicious and gut-turning flexibility and control.David Carberry and Daniel Catlow flip and fight with strength and power and brutality that the eye doesn’t want to turn away from. Mozes swings overhead so that the whoosh of air by his feet can be felt on the faces of the audience in the front row, and when he repeatedly makes a red handkerchief disappear in his clothes until there are no more clothes for it to disappear in to, until it still disappears the audience doesn’t quite know where to look at all.
On the opening night in Adelaide one routine didn’t go quite to plan, as Chelsea McGuffin took several false starts to walk across the tops of glass wine bottles on top of a pianola. As in many moments during the show, the audience waited and willed, their collective energy completely vested in McGuffin completing the trick.
I find it interesting, this fallibility we allow in circus performers, the forgiveness we extend to them which perhaps we don’t to actors and dancers and musicians. Perhaps it is that in a circus, we feel there is more of the personality of the performer in the character. Perhaps it is simply the nature of circus allows for re-tries: when a mistake happens, the audience can see the performer strive for achievement repeatedly on the same trick in the one show. Perhaps it is just with live performance there is an element of the feeling of wouldn’t it be a good story to tell, if something went wrong, while in circus the story will be much better if it went right. And in Cantina it does repeatedly go right. Even though McGuffin didn’t completely recover on that act, she came back full strength in later scenes.
Throughout the show, scenes are accompanied or bookended with the ukulele tunings of Nara Demasson, and the show is scored with a combination of recorded and live music, including the pianola acting as a second playing space, and a series of percussion instruments to punctuate the fight scenes. Much of the soundscape, though, comes from the collective gasp or squirm or holding of breath of the audience, as the cast seem to defy laws of science in ways we feel should not possibly be able to happen.
Cantina is powerful stuff. I like my circus a little bit raw, a little bit of pain, and a whole lot of human behind them. While they achieve feats that I can’t even begin to conceive achieving, without veneer, the human heart – and with it, the human strength – is the thing that shines through.