Playthings by Circus Freaks: Walking on ceilings and other fun

Circus Freaks offers striking visuals and circus feats at Festival of Independent Theatres, but the narrative of Playthings needs work.


Dallas — Some astounding characters appear in Playthings, the latest stage presentation from Circus Freaks, boasting jaw-dropping costumes and clever hair and make-up. The simple stage features only a small mad-scientist work zone and a colorful five-foot tall Jack-in-the-Box box with a top trap door. The short play, part of the Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center, is a visual delight to behold.

From the box emerges Jacque, portrayed by Marie Martin, in exquisite whiteface, reducing her features to mere ciphers. She pulls out a micro-piano and plays interesting and whimsical music sounding like a cross between a calliope and children’s toys, thanks to the synthesizer inside, with just the right amount of lyrics. Martin beautifully maintained a puppet’s erect posture and rigid face, allowing emotion to peek through only at key moments.

The sartorial William Augustus Dinkelmeyer (Alan Blakeley), looking as old-fashioned as his name, as the play’s Geppetto character, is outshone by his automatron assistant, Ticke, played by Rachel Hullett. Her pale make-up emphasizes her porcelain features and red Goldilocks curls, with imaginative arm and leg stockings that show the doll’s mechanical workings. Rachael Williams’s Veda the voodoo doll has the perfect look but seems too much like a zombie on Xanax. A more engaging body language and personality would go a long way. Dolls can do anything, even voodoo ones. Rounding out the Dinkelmeyer dolls is the melancholy monster La Bête (Russ Sharek), a silent character who’s a cross between a clown, Eyeore, and a Wild Rumpus monster. The giant monster feet are a terrific take on oversized clown shoes.

Circus theater is not a format that holds emotional, nuance-enabling deep plots. Cirque du Soleil overcomes the plotting problem with high-energy dazzle, albeit aided by mega budgets. Circus Freaks is on to something with the plot of Playthings. Dinkelmeyer is a master toymaker who attempts to bring depth to his life-size creations by implanting some of his memories into them, with predictably wayward results. In the process, he loses those memories and majorly screws up his creations. Should be a major plot revelation and drama point, but old Dinkelmeyer never seems terribly distressed about it. He’s much too a congenial guy for a Svengali who controls lifeforms. You yearn for glimpses of the deeper, darker motivations that have to be behind all that. Or for a more demonstrative father figure.

The setpiece upon which Playthings plot hangs is Veda the sword-swallowing voodoo doll. The circus act is preceded by a long prologue about pleasure and pain. Acting as a boogeyman, a mythic character that carries the sins of the people, their dark side so to speak, she works the audience, extracting their pain as little light balls and placing them in her basket. It’s a lovely bit. But the narration never reaches the emotional depth needed. Go deeper. Tell us something new about pleasure needing pain for contrast, or do it with far more eloquent and authentic language. We need to feel for Veda and never do. The final sword-swallowing ends up being too anti-climatic.

Playthings hit an engaging and fun highpoint with the acro-yoga/strength-acrobatics routine by Tocke (Scott Renkes) and sheriff Alice Oakland (Courtney Vanous). Not sure if they were Dinkelmeyer dolls, but the next thing you know these two are rolling and flipping all over the stage, even walking upside on the proscenium arch, all to get a wrench hung from the stage rigging. The characters were so unselfconscious (Renkes has come an admirably long way in that regard) and so engaged with each other that the audience instantly reciprocated. It was all the talk of the lobby afterward.

A slowly unfolding production, Playthings is spare and leisurely paced to the extreme, and rather quiet. Circus Freaks is admirable for eschewing the razzmatazz that marks many contemporary circuses, instead favoring real compositions, usually by local musicians. But a soundtrack that carried the momentum along, plus punctuating sound effects, especially for Dinkelmeyer, would help a great deal. The show starts with an extended, very low energy and not very meaty exposition by Dinkelmeyer with a few of his dolls. It never much rises from there. The free-floating energy and lack of dynamics left a mostly disengaged audience.

In circus theater, there is a key balance between the circus acts and the conveyances between them. Too little conveyance and it comes across as a variety show; too much and it just seems like padding for time. While the conveyances of Playthings arise naturally from the plot, it never hits that balance. Its four circus act set pieces—juggling, contact juggling, sword swallowing, and acro-yoga—are far too short for an hour-long show. But it created some funny audience moments since most were unsure when or if to applaud after them. Cheesy bows are not needed, but some subtle signaling would lessen the confusion.

Playthings characters circulate in the lobby afterward, a delicious opportunity to see the creations up close. It was nice to learn that the characters have been in development for a long time at Circus Freaks open mics and workshops, including the highly recommended monthly one held at the Bath House Cultural Center. And to hear that the troupe plans to continue to develop the depth and length of Playthings. There’s a tremendous amount of potential to be realized.


» Playthings continues in the following blocks:

  • 8 p.m. Thursday, July 23
  • 5 p.m. Saturday, July 25
  • 8 p.m. Friday, July 31
  • 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2

» Click here to read our interview with Russ Sharek of Circus Freaks

» Click here to go to our special section devoted to the Festival of Independent Theatres. You’ll find a schedule, interviews, reviews and more.


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