A Circus of the Imagination

A family enchants audiences with its dream-scape of evolving images

A DARKENED stage surrounds a spotlight of royal blue. As music swells, the whispers of children in the audience are submerged. Then the music stops, and a wild white-haired man with a piercing stare and menacing grin marches out, produces a candle, and lights it. Inserting it into his mouth, he chews, swallows. The lights fade, and a red hue glows from his belly. We are tickled.

Welcome to Le Cirque Imaginaire, a 20-year-old minimalist stage ``circus'' that serves up plenty of delightful fantasy. It was created by the husband-wife team of Jean Baptiste Thierree and Victoria Chaplin (yes, the fourth child of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O'Neill).

It has been three years since Le Cirque toured the United States, and the current visit comes end Sunday, after several weeks at the American Repertory Theater here. Earlier stops included the international theater festivals in both Chicago and Stonybrook, N.Y.

Without question, this circus travels light. In 1971 Thierree and Chaplin launched it in traditional style with a 30-member company at France's Avignon Festival.

Since then, they have distilled the show by the truckload down to something close to the exercise of pure imagination, where less is more. Gone are elaborate sets, ferocious tigers, ornately decked horses, and all but three performers: Thierree, Chaplin, and their 15-year-old son, James Spencer.

The only props are a few barnyard animals, a slew of household items, and electrifying costumes in vibrant colors and unusual shapes.

Thierree and Chaplin generally keep silent about their own attitudes toward their work and seldom talk to the press. In program notes, they offer these thoughts: ``With the passing of the years, as the circus moved on, bit by bit the cumbersome trappings of the classical circus have been abandoned. The show has developed like a patchwork, from country to country, from dream to dream. ... We offer no theories, no methods - Le Cirque Imaginaire is a mere diversion to which we welcome you.''

What speaks for them, they say in their silence, is what they spin and weave on stage.

Besides America and France, they appear on stages in Europe, North and South America, and Australia.

Both Thierree and Chaplin have had lifelong exposure to the entertainment world. He began as a circus performer and later became an actor in French theater and films; she was a student of ballet and music in Switzerland, and spent a childhood influenced by her father, Charlie.

Chaplin shuffles on stage to music of the Far East, looking every bit a Japanese princess. When she dips her head down, a fan-crown unfolds and transforms her into a flower. From beneath her satin cloak, she produces two bold red fans, which attach as wings. In fluid motion, she reveals bigger fans, opening and attaching them. In moments, her human form is completely changed, and she struts offstage as a giant bird-like creature. We are mystified.

Le Cirque Imaginaire delivers a dream-landscape of ethnic music and evolving images. And it is at the moments when colorful transformations have been paintbrushed on our minds that absurdity walks on stage.

Thierree marches to center stage, covered from hat to shoes in embroidered fabric and carrying an embroidered suitcase. He takes off his coat and reveals an embroidered shirt. Opening the suitcase, he pulls out an embroidered folding chair and begins to embroider, pausing a moment to pull out embroidered glasses. He puts them on and resumes his embroidery work. In seconds, he takes out a banana with embroidered skin, which he peels and eats. We are in stitches.

This minimalist circus can be regarded as a reaction against our ``more is better'' era. Gone are the big-top trappings, fire rings, sword-swallowers. Here, instead, is childlike play - bubbles being blown then popped by a hammer, the sounds of tiny bells, a wobbly, ``infirm'' juggling ball being swept into a first-aid bag.

The use of household items helps establish an immediate rapport between performers and audience and involves us with each act. Thierree's menagerie of props ranges from carrots and a milk pitcher to wandering rabbits and loudmouth ducks. There are even three microscopic ``diamonds,'' which he frenetically juggles.

Chaplin becomes a one-person band, festooned with bottles, bells, and blocks. She later performs a classical piece with a violin bow and handsaw.

James Spencer rolls out to center stage atop an enormous metallic ball. From beneath the flaccid scarf he holds, a mysterious ball with ``gravitational force'' suddenly appears. Hanging on tightly, he becomes adroit on his toes as the mysterious force tugs him off the stage.

The ``freak-show'' element in this circus has nothing to do with miniature men and fat ladies. It comes, rather, in the form of pure fantasy: A suitcase sprints across the stage; an upside-down umbrella, with legs and white tights, dances; a man marches across the stage with Thierree's head in a box on his back.

The bombardment of the bizarre bewitches the imagination, and the delightfully uneven pacing nourishes a sense of spontaneity.

Le Cirque Imaginaire is honest and inventive entertainment laced with child's play and fantasy. Its simplicity helps peel away layers of predictable adult responses. The end result is a wondrous art that engages, and reverberates in, the imagination.

The white-haired man walks across stage with a teapot-shaped marionette, then produces a tiny teacup into which the puppet pours. He walks off the stage. Moments later, a human sized teacup marches out with a puppet that resembles the white-haired man, stops to kick the tiny man, and marches off. The stage fades to blackness.

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