Photo by Bernard DutheilAt Cirque Lili, the slightly sinister circus at the Barclay Theater this month, the patented French melancholy pervades: this circus cheerfully embraces misery as only a grumpy Frenchman could.
So, to rightfully appreciate lepetitcirque, you must alter your expectations. This is no ethereal Cirque du Soleil or grandstanding, razzmatazz Barnum & Bailey. It's a mini,with a small red tent seating 250, a wooden circular stage 26 feet across, and two performers accompanied by two musicians. No lions, tigers or bears to be found; think piazza in Brussels or Barcelona on a Saturday night—where bands of vagabond fire throwers and hoopers (a.k.a. Hula-Hoop professionals) extemporize with ordinary objects, by lamplight.
Jerome Thomas, Cirque jongleur extraordinaire, says that this is the direction in which all circuses will head: a balletic, cabaret form, with music, mood and choreography. Thomas should know; he's been groomed for this since childhood, beginning his formal circus education at the Annie Fratellini Circus School in Paris at age 11. Thomas currently teaches at the Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque in Chalons-sur-Marne and the Moscow Circus School and is designing a ballet for jugglers.
Built sort of like a dancer with smaller, parallel muscles, Thomas plays with a white feather, flips around a metal square, and dances with two balls on the outsides of his hands, the centrifugal force keeping them plastered to his body. (He sweats profusely—front row, beware.) His circus stuff is nimble and subtle, a fooling around that verges on the absurd. He plays with balloons like a lion tamer, gets his hand stuck on his face, juggles on a swivel chair (again—front row, beware), and finds a male member of the audience to zip up his shorts.
Thomas interjects his performance with lots of Gallic "ehs" and "voilas" and wears a variety of bizarre costumes that are probably funnier to the fops of Europe: a shabby coat for the down-and-out "tramp" character, popularized by the American Emmett Kelly, and the audience favorite, a dress paired with leopard-print shorts.
Thomas's sidekick, Circus Boy, played by the poker-faced Christophe Pilven, interjects whimsy into the space between his boss's acts, dropping props and making the scene changes interesting. And the two equally stoic accordionists, Jean-Francois Baez and Guy Klucevsek—I didn't see them smile once—are quite competent, mixing woebegone notes and seductive tango rhythms.
But I'm not sure if Cirque Lili is a good fit for Orange County—or America. I felt like I would have laughed harder if I had gotten all the jokes from LesVisiteurs(the French equivalent of BillandTed'sExcellentAdventure), or spent more time on the Continent. Intriguing, not overwhelming, it doesn't quite jell next to our SUVs, ever-widening freeways and ever-more-obvious humor. But shouldn't a clown be grumpy, dark and slightly fey? Yes, he should.?
CIRQUE LILI, BARCLAY THEATER, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646 OR (714) 740-7478; WWW.THEBARCLAY.ORG OR WWW.JEROME-THOMAS.COM. THURS.-FRI., JULY 14-15 & SUN.-THURS., JULY 21, 8 P.M. THROUGH JULY 27, 8 P.M. $25-$35.