Radha S Menon’s The Circus deals with the circus as an audience member would expect- at one point in the short play, clowns come out and a ringmaster directs the audience to an unexpected (for a small theatre show) bit of big top performance. But it’s a title that represents a different definition of circus: human drama and excitement as a spectacle. And it’s a mostly entertaining spectacle.
The play centers on daughter Katie as she accompanies her wife Brenda and estranged father Sammy to a football game (Tiger-Cats football of course, this being a local original composition; anything else would be akin to blasphemy). Katie is hiding the fact she is now married to a woman, something of which her traditional and conservative father from the old country would never approve. Meanwhile, he’s a habitual drinker who convinces the now sober Katie to take up booze again, leading to an unintended consequence and eventually intended reconciliation.
The characters are well-written and mostly well-acted. Brenda and Sammy have a tension that works to fuel the conflict, while a spectator named Cheech, who sits behind the three of them, is slowly drawn into their drama. Cheech, played Emi Di Pietro (a ‘proud Ti-Cat fan’ according to the playbill) was easily the audience’s favourite character, and it makes sense considering he was the most relatable. In fact, the whole play works so well because it’s drawn out from almost universal experiences at sporting events- who hasn’t had drama unfold in the seats in front of them? Who hasn’t had a stranger start talking and connect to them during the game?
There is one part may draw take the audience out of this good character study, and that’s the circus interlude. There’s no doubt it’s fun to watch, but it takes the subtle symbolism about the circus from the play (Sammy used to work in the circus) and makes it totally overt, while at the same time making it totally pretentious. This was a fairly and refreshingly straightforward play before and after the circus part, and the more straightforward parts were the best and most entertaining parts of the play, despite really impressive theatrics.
Another difficulty was the idea that Katie, after 25 years without seeing her father, would care whether or not her father knew about her marriage to a woman. It’s true, the play is about the complications of human relationships and how we remember (or forget) the past, which makes the whole idea slightly ridiculous but believable, but some may find it more of the former than the latter.
Despite this, the play is populated by characters who are complex and real, because it’s about a city and people struggling with their own change. Katie has to deal with the anxiety of revealing her way of life, which is (mostly) accepted here in Canada, to her antiquated father who believes in traditional marriage (really, really traditional- he essentially wants to tell his daughter who to marry). And even when reprimanding others for making offensive statements, the characters still harbour their own prejudices. As well, the play is mostly set in one section of bleachers at the now-decimated Ivor Wynne Stadium, a major project that represents some of the most controversial change for Hamiltonians.
Though some of the one liners miss their target- the writing trying to be too clever for its own good- the play is quite funny, and with a strong cast it’s a very enjoyable 70 minutes. It is odd that the more offensive statements, too broad to be played for humour, generated some of the biggest laughs. Maybe the play tells us more about the Hamilton audience than it thinks.
The Circus runs for three more shows March 14-16 at the Lyric Theatre.