`Imaginary Circus': where smallness is special

If E.F. Schumacher, guru of the ``small is beautiful'' ethic, had ever held sway with the Ringling brothers, the result might have been ``Le Cirque Imaginaire'' - a toy-size, two-person circus that is redefining the three-ring genre by a process of elimination. You notice what's not there. Not a ringmaster, not wild animals, not high-flying aerialists. Barely a hurdy-gurdy. What's left is one woman dancing a jig on a high wire while wearing a white nightgown and looking like Wee Willie Winkie as directed by Robert Wilson. This is circus as dreamscape. A minimalist Greatest Show on Earth. And it's having an all-too-fleeting run at the American Repertory Theatre.

The fanciful creation of Victoria Chaplin (yes, daughter of Charlie) and her husband, Jean Baptiste Thierr'ee, ``Le Cirque Imaginaire'' is a hybrid bit of entertainment that borrows as much from Barnum & Bailey as it does from Avner-the-Eccentric with a bit of Mummenschanz, the acclaimed Swiss mime troupe, thrown in. It's silly, gasp producing, and awe inspiring, all at once.

For what Ms. Chaplin and Mr. Thierr'ee plumb is not so much the depths of old-fashioned showmanship, or even the New Vaudeville, but the quirky fringes of the imagination. What unites the disparate parts of ``Le Cirque Imaginaire'' - Chaplin's derring-do on the high wire, Thierr'ee's droll eccentricity as magician, their combined efforts as mime artists - is a profound sense of play. Otherwise, how else explain the sheer workability of such an unlikely intra-act as when Thierr'ee runs on stage wearing a fright wig and carrying a steel suitcase billowing white clouds of smoke. Accompanied by the thundering ``Ride of the Valkyries,'' Thierr'ee flings opens the case (more smoke), dons a mask, and runs off stage. How else to explain the wild applause elicited by four geese, a rabbit, and a pile of chopped vegetables, the unexpected m'elange that wraps up Act I.

How else, indeed? In a word: training. Thierr'ee and Chaplin are professional circus performers inspired by two legendary clowns, Joseph Grimaldi and Grock. The duo began their creative collaboration with ``Le Cirque Bonjour,'' their first production that premi`ered at France's prestigious Avignon Festival in 1971. It was a far more traditional circus then - 30-plus performers and a herd of animals - that over the years has been winnowed to its present sinewy form.

Today, just Chaplin and Thierr'ee perform, along with two of their three children and a handful of barnyard animals. They're a sort of chamber circus that plays in equally tiny, unorthodox spaces. When not drawing crowds in London or on American stages, ``Le Cirque Imaginaire'' pitches its tent in small European villages and woos its audience with a drum and crier.

The one-hour show is a delightfully low-tech sequence of small acts: Chaplin performing the more traditional circus stunts, with Thierr'ee filling in the gaps with his silly clown-magician's patter, albeit in French.

One of the best: Chaplin flying over the audience, hanging by a looped rope, her hair whipping in the wind like a ribbon.

One of the silliest: Thierr'ee clumping on stage, two suitcases doubling for shoes, reading a book spewing flames.

One of the more striking: Chaplin stalking the stage on stilts, dressed like a couture-garbed giraffe, while one of her children, a silk-swathed b'eb'e, runs in and out of her scissoring, statuesque legs.

It's a production that seamlessly melds visual lyricism and wit. And no more so than on the faces of its two performers.

Thierr'ee, with his Harpo Marx fixed grin, is the acme of otherworldly humor, a combination of Jonathan Winters and Marcel Marceau. Chaplin, with her silent dancer's body, is every inch her father's daughter. Her wide-eyed, anxious gaze suggests that Chaplinesque wary amazement which never quite knows what - disaster or something dazzling - will happen next. It's the height of theatrical wonderment.

At the ART through Sept. 20.

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