“Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Dictionary (1906)
(republished as The Devil’s Dictionary in 1911)
It’s been a while since I’ve been to a proper circus. Given that the traditional circus isn’t what it used to be (I hear it’s evolving without the animals, but I’ve yet to see for myself), perhaps I’m not missing much. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing what the new circus of the 21st Century looks like. In fact, I’ll be doing just that in a few days when I go to see Cirque du Soleil’s latest show, Amaluna, later this week.
But my life hasn’t been completely circus-free in adulthood. In fact, I’ve done quite a lot of work with the folks from the SF Circus Center, one of the country’s premiere training grounds for paint-faced performers. The alumni of the Center not only learn the skills that have entertained children for centuries, but their monthly cabaret show is still one of the most entertaining regular shows to be seen in our fair city.
I actually thought about the Circus Center’s Cabaret show when I started researching The Soiled Dove. I was walking through Oakland a few weeks ago and couldn’t help but notice a big-ass tent having popped up about a block away from the BART station. After taking one of the postcards they had available, I came to find that the tent was set up by the same folks who once gave SF Teatro ZinZanni. I’ve mentioned before that I knew quite a few ZinZanni folk before they permanently dropped the tent in 2011. Unfortunately, I never got to see them perform. Not once in the ten years the tent was in The City.
So, when I found out that Vau de Vire were putting on a big cabaret show in the spirit of its ZinZanni predecessor, the least I could do was check it out.
The first thing I noticed, as I waited to go in the Tortana Big Top, was that I felt a bit underdressed for the occasion. As easy as it would be to attribute my fellow patrons’ flashy attire (steampunk, Victorian, Old West) to it simply being the day after Hallowe’en, I think a lot of them just chose to dress the part. I was just in all-white from head to toe, so I suddenly wished I had some piloting goggles or leather chaps.
Upon entering the tent proper, all guests are encouraged to pass through a second, unofficial gate: the arms of a pair of “twins” whom we’ll see later on in the show. The best way for me to describe interior of the Tortana would be that it resembles the inside of the eponymous roller rink from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate with long wooden dining tables and a carpeted ground that, honestly, did resemble the feeling of walking on dirt. As I was only there as press, I didn’t have access to the menu (maybe next time), but the full-dinner patrons seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Also, there was a woman walking around with a rooster on her shoulder. We’d find out why later.
The balconies flanking the stage reveal this to be an old-fashioned Western “house of ill repute”, with the lower levels acting as showcases for a photobooth (modern and digital), works of art, and Vau de Vire memorabilia. Directly across from the stage was the wood-heavy bar, with several acrobatic hoops hanging from the roof down to the second stage in the dead-center of the tent. I took a seat a few tables away from dead-center, but the advantage of the show taking place on raised platforms is that (I think) everyone in the audience has a good vantage point to see what’s happening. (There was a reserved seating area near the entrance which didn’t look much higher than the tables.)
Then it was “on with the show”. Even before the show proper starts, we’re treated to the sounds of the evening’s troubadours, The Jazz Mafia. Yes, their sound is both jazzy and old-timey, but you’d be surprised how much it also resembles ‘70s and ‘80s R&B, especially with singing style of their lead vocalist. They kick off the show with a catchy li’l number called “Did you Hear about the Bird?”, and it just gets snappier from there.
After a number called “Let the Good Times Roll”, we get into the story, such as it is. “Once upon a time,” a narrator tells us, “a wayward soul wandered into The Soiled Dove… I mean you!” Yes, we weary travelers have stumbled into one of the Barbary Coast’s most infamous dens of sin, overseen by (fictional?) hostess Lotta Country and (historical figure) Mary Ellen Pleasant. They invite us to have fun, but – through the visual aid of a nude grizzly – they warn that there’s no groping or flash photography (“It’s 1890 – put your phone away!”) They encourage revelry, but also order.
That order is threatened by the return of former Soiled Dove resident Happy Jack, a devil-red-dressed hedonist who ran off when he knocked up one of the doves (one of the establishment’s working girls). Though he claims to now walk a more Godly path, he continues to be a fly in the ointment of Lotta, Mary, and we guests. Wondering whether Jack’s unrestrained Id will win out over Lotta’s Super-Ego is about as much plot as this cabaret show gets – and it doesn’t really need any more.
There is A LOT good about this show. It would take me too long to go over every detail individually – added to which, it’s hard to identify most of the performers, as the official website doesn’t list them – but the show makes the most out of its two-hour runtime. From our welcoming twins doing a very twin-like contortionist routine in a sky-high ring to upside-down foot archery to a jaw-dropping bathtub routine by performer Kitty Oaks, the show never runs short of willing performers or bawdy routines to keep we audiences entertained and liquored up (I had a “Lotta Sings” cocktail – not bad). What’s more, encouraging the audience to occasionally take part – usually through call-and-response songs, like a piano ditty about loving Oakland – is both welcoming and just close enough to “interactive” for even those who consider “interactive” a sin in theatre.
If the show has a notable flaw, it’s the live audio-mixing. Rarely does the Jazz Mafia take a break, which makes it incredibly hard to hear the microphoned performers sing or even speak. I know the plot isn’t crucial to the show, but I wanted to hear every lyric sung and correctly take down every name spoken. (I mean, hey, I’m a critic – I like to get as many details right as I can.) Both were frequently hard to do because the band kept drowning them out. I mean, hey, I’m a critic – I like to get as many details right as I can.
This isn’t a show-killer, but it was a constant problem that would often pull me out of the show.
As the festivities draw to a close, Happy Jack blesses we parishioners with The Gospel of Bohemia: “Do what you love, even if it kills you. Live every day like it’s your last, ‘cause on the Barbary Coast, it might be!”
We may not know what, if anything, awaits us in the Great Beyond, but The Soiled Dove is rousing good time to be had in the here and now. What it lacks in narrative cohesion it more than makes up for with eye-popping spectacle. If you love contortionists, aerialists, and burlesque teasers as much as I do, you can do worse than to give your time to the fine folks under the Tortana Big Top.
The Soiled Dove is scheduled to run until the 7th of December at the Tortana Big Top in Oakland, CA.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.