Rough-and-tumble Circus Oz brings high purpose to Berkeley shows
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
BERKELEY -- Cal Performances is going airborne, with madness and mayhem brought to Zellerbach Hall courtesy of Australia's Circus Oz on Feb 15-17.
"We like to think that we represent the positive things about Australian culture," writes Artistic Director Mike Finch in an email. Citing the country's "convict heritage, inherent humor, and can-do attitude," he says the troupe's shows are "precise and difficult."
That's for the performers, of course. For the audience, the Circus Oz experience may make the belly ache (from laughing), or the hands sore (from clapping), or the jaw tired (from grinning all the way home), but it's a happy hangover.
The show, titled "From the Ground Up," is inhabited by gifted musicians swinging through the air while performing slapstick comedy and hoop-diving athlete/artists who surpass "stunts" to achieve what can only be called "stuns."
"It's life-threatening," says Finch, matter-of-factly suggesting that Australia's open space and massive coastline encourage ensemblic exuberance.
It's really no surprise, given that his company springs from a land where football is played in a "free-running, nonstop game, with no helmets, no body armor nor any other silly, fraidy-cat, risk-averse affectations," according to Finch.
But Australia, like any country, is also a jumble of contradictions and these are reflected in Circus Oz's egalitarian approach and missionary zeal.
Teamwork is all: from the collaborative, collective "playtime" approach used in developing the work, to the all-hands-on-deck performances. It's not unusual to see stage crew in the spotlight (Finch says rigger Chad Albinger does a fabulous solo pole act), or to watch one of the 14 onstage ensemble members rigging an upcoming act or playing in the band.
Heckling -- one of the defining aspects of the company's "prick your own bubble" character -- is common, even encouraged.
"We like to play, and we like the audience to play with us," Finch says.
Despite the laid-back implications of juggling and jesting, Circus Oz gains heft and even social significance from four foundational attributes.
Promoting men and women as equally powerful isn't just a polemic motto, it's displayed onstage for all to see.
Indigenous Australians in the cast and a recently added intern position to develop native talent from "down under," are rigorous evidence of the company's stated values of "community, diversity, and humanity."
The company's historic and cultural relevance is retained by a "lifetime" membership policy. Retiring members (Finch calls them the "Circus Oz mob") are the custodians of the company's practices and values.
Two founding members, senior circus artist, co-CEO and tribal elder Tim Coldwell, and costume and wardrobe mistress Laurel Frank, along with Finch's "I've been here 15 years and will be here 15 more" manifesto, reinforce the company's deep roots.
"We don't seem to be at any real risk of losing our soul," says Finch.
And soul, or social justice, is the final heavyweight component of Circus Oz. Finch is most passionate about battling Australia's mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees.
"In Australia, we have both the mainstream parties engaging in a race to the bottom on the subject," he says. "It has become a political issue rather than a humanitarian one. Although we have a huge amount of room to share, our politicians are using harsh policies and mandatory detention to score votes."
Circus Oz has raised nearly $400,000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a charity set up to assist the country's most vulnerable citizens with aid, advocacy and acceptance.
But when Circus Oz swings high in Berkeley, Finch primarily hopes to inspire skyscraping elation, made possible when a diverse group of people engage in dangerously joyful absurdity.