Freak No-Show?!

Was it Pat Buchanan who said global capitalism would destroy the American circus?

The circuses we saw as children were tawdry, worn and sad as hell in the daylight. Makeup was an inch thick to cover meth-soaked nights, the clowns were scary, and the animals were bored creatures that shat great mountains of dung and shuffled toward bleak deaths at the hands of savage trainers.

But Barnum's Kaleidoscape in the parking lot at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheateris a veritable Ritz of crimson velveteen, with nary a mar on the retro ringside chaises. The costumes seem new and untattered, and the galloping white horses don't look pre-glue. And the fantasmic cast? They're actually fresh-faced, and nobody looks strung-out. The trapeze artist is death-defying and hot-and she's the one who trained the horses.

We had a small epiphany while watching the fantastic juggler spitting Ping-Pong balls like a Thai hooker. "Oh!" we thought to ourselves. "Look at all the gay people!" From this, we formulated a fabulous thesis about gay children running off to join the circus throughout history. We imagined them keeping a kerchief tied to a stick under their cots for the day when Barnum & Bailey would finally come and whisk them away from their narrow-minded, downright mean little slices of Rockwellian America. And you thought the circus was just a haven for amazing wolf boys and the morbidly obese.

Of course, our perceptive thesis lasted only as long as it took us to actually open our press kit-which was several days, during which we tinkered with and fine-tuned our suppositions. It seems, of course, that the entire cast is . . . European.

Are they gay or just French? We don't know, and we're not sure the same cultural stereotypes apply overseas. For instance, we're pretty sure one can be straight and on a drill team in Bulgaria. It may also be usual for hetero Russian aerialists to hold hands after a job well-done; they don't tend to have our macho hangups.

It's especially fascinating to see Mr. and Mrs. Irvine (and Mr. and Mrs. Truckstop in Fontana-ever notice how far people in World Wrestling Federation shirts will drive for a circus?) embrace the flamboyance. (Well, okay, so Mr. and Mrs. Irvine had their arms folded and weren't embracing anything. Do these people never slouch? Also, the missus gave us a pissy look. Why? She's a dick.) It's like Liberace all over again. He was so well-loved by so many people who would have sat shiva for him if they'd known he was gay and if gentiles happened to sit shiva, which they don't-but those boots! When Morocco's The Living Statues-that's their name!-come out all painted gold in their Rocky Horror high-cheek shorts and begin bending over from the waist in slow motion and wrap themselves around one another's waists and ankles and asses and faces till it looks like a game of gold, gay Twister, all the dads, whether Coors-drinking and deer-shooting or Volvo-driving and arm-folding, get a little uncomfortable. Don't they?

But perhaps its not the perceived queerness of all the gymnasts flipping themselves fabulously about that makes the menfolk so quiet. Maybe it's the sense that, as Karl Marx once said, under capitalism, all that is solid melts into the air. Circuses are American! American!And yet only two performers here are American-and they're from Sacramento and Florida! This is what your General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has gotten you. Those suckers born every minute? Barnum was talking about us! Not a damn bunch of snail eaters! Circuses are supposed to be scary and full of people with stillborn fetuses on their heads, like the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. And now the Europeans have taken them and made them effete, made them full of "talent." U.S.-born Barnum is now playing catch-up with the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil and "classing it up." We're competing with-and losing to!-Europeans. From Europe.

They've taken our terrifying shadowlands and our traveling social-misfit outlets and filled them with sunshine, mirth and really, really good acts. It's disturbing. Instead of sad half-witted geeks, Barnum's circus is full of second-generation acrobats from Bulgaria doing unimaginably impressive feats on the tightrope while balancing a 10-foot pole on their foreheads upon which stands a beautiful lady on one foot. Its clown, "David"-and what the hell kind of name is that for a clown?-hails from Verona, Italy, and claims to be the world's most lovable clown. You know what? He's pretty damn lovable. Even the dwarf, Istvan, hails from Budapest. They're taking all our jobs! They lull us by having their womenfolk dress in period costume at the beginning of the show-a healthy mix of bloomers that we doubt would have gone uncovered back in the day, unless you count that lingerie scene in Oklahoma!. Don't believe them for a second. They may be paying homage to Americana, but they're just costumes. They are the circus elite, not our homegrown brand of pierced, toothless, meth-fueled losers. They might be pod people, but they make a mighty fine circus.

The Italians make mighty fine fancy coffees; we drink them now instead of bean juice boiled for barrel-chested men. We have dismantled our economy in order to manufacture our products the world over for 17 cents per hour. We've lost our rough-hewn, pioneer edge. We drink better wine; we drink better beer. Instead of the world making itself over in our image, as we've always thought, we're the ones getting the makeover. We just provide the commercial breaks.

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