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A Circus Maximus for All Ages

The Big Apple Circus: The Medicine Show at A Tent Next to the World Trade Center 300 Northern Avenue T: South Station through May 4

By Whitney K. Bryant

A strange, tasty elixir is what will be found to ooze from the core of the Big Apple Circus's new Medicine Show, currently appearing in Boston. Even the circus's venue is special: an enormous free-standing tent covered on the inside with stars and decorated with all the circus trimmings. The show is the Big Apple Circus's attempt to revive the age-old genre of a traveling medicine spectacle, combined with their "intimate" one-ring circus. All in all, the Big Apple delivers an entertaining diversion but not without a few strange interludes.

The Big Apple Circus manages to maintain a small-circus feeling, even though a great deal of planning and work has clearly gone into putting together the extravaganza. The result is a classy spectacle a cut above the gaudy shenanigans of the typical Ringling Bros. performance. The set is made to resemble a small town (Spindlay, Ohio, 1896) with the orchestra perched above the ring atop the set's main building, a saloon.

The orchestra is, in fact, one of the stronger points of the Big Apple show. Most of the music accompanying the show was composed by a member of the circus company, but often the orchestra plays familiar pop hits at appropriate moments. During the stock horse act, they play a toned down version of "Groovin."' On the other hand, the orchestra sometimes gets a bit carried away with the pop music, at one point subjecting the audience 40 seconds of Grandma, the circus's star clown, dancing the evil "Macarena."

Unfortunately, it is just this sort of weird episode that mars the surface of a perfectly good apple. One of the best acts of the show, "Muttville Comix Troupe," is comprised of performing dogs "rescued from shelters around the world." But things get a little strange when one dog appears to spray urine all over a section of the audience, which is extremely close to the ring as per the "intimate" set-up. Later, that same dog is thrown out into the audience, literally, and then thrown back to the freaky ring-leader, who continually rubs the dogs' bellies.

The dogs are nonetheless more tolerable than the elephant act, which is uncomfortable to watch. Joining the dogs in being "born again," the elephants (one of them over 50) were rescued from other circus. But after a few moments of the performers prancing around on the elephants' backs in frilly, revealing sailor costumes, one simply wishes they'd let these animals stop and take a nap.

Apart from such bizarre moments, the circus is generally good, but for one awkward--even offensive--episode involving a clown-cum-high-wire artist. Falling into the net after a failed flip, the performer feigned wetting his pants (note the recurring urine theme) and said, inexplicably, "I don't speak English." He then pretended to go hand himself on a nearby rope. Parents in the audience must have been horrified.

Even though some parts only resemble clumsy attempts at alienating every member of the audience, the circus soars on many of its acrobatics and magic acts. The three towns-people (James Clowney, Carlos Guity and Julian Stachowski) do an amazing series of aerial double-gainers using only two poles balanced on their necks. Anatoli and Liubov Sudarchikov, the Siberian magic team, do a restrained yet exciting act: clothes changes in less than a blink of an eye.

A trip to take your medicine with the Big Apple Circus makes for a highly entertaining evening--and none too expensive: tickets range from $10-35, and the taxi is $10 round-trip from South Station. Be prepared for a spectacle that's slightly less dizzying than a three-ring extravaganza but that compensates with a mascot: a cross-dressing middle-aged man named "Grandma" whose wig has a chinstrap.

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