Frights for Our Times: “Cirque of the Dead”

Presented by Boston Circus Guild
Directed by Eileen Little
Creative Production and Costume Design by Ellen Waylonis
Script by Tim Ellis
Stage management by Zahra Garrett and Micaela Slotin
Lighting design by Brittany Trymbulak
Featuring Alex Jackson, Alex Oliva, Caroline Wright, Ellen Waylonis, Judith Ngari, Morgan Oldham, Rachel Barringer, Roger May, Tim Ellis

October 27 – October 31
Arts at the Armory
191 Highland Ave
Somerville MA, 02143

Review by Maegon Bergeron-Clearwood

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — There’s something about this show, I thought to myself, partway through the first act of Cirque of the Dead, that feels distinctly millennial. It wasn’t just the jokes about podcasting and politics – beneath every clever quip and gravity-defying flip, there was a vague existential dread lingering beneath the surface.

Sure enough, the true villain of Boston Circus Guild’s Halloween saga is not a demon that needs to be ritualistically trapped inside the vessel of a Barbie doll, but instead the crushing feeling of powerlessness that defines being a young-ish adult in 2023. And our greatest strength in this time of despair, it turns out, is teamwork (and, of course, Taylor Swift).

Am I overthinking a 90-minute circus show, framed by a silly story about paranormal investigator podcasters? Possibly. But circus is a beautiful metaphor for these themes of trust and hope: every act contains an element of real-world danger, and it takes a full team of collaborators to ensure that the show can go on. And with Cirque of the Dead, perhaps even more impressive than the mesmerizing contortion, acrobatic, and aerial acts is the inventiveness of site-specific, ensemble storytelling.

Director Eileen Little and Creative Producer Ellen Waylonis, along with a veritable horde of capable stagehands, have transformed Arts at the Armory into an immersive stage world, with multiple playing areas in and among the audience. There’s a constant element of surprise as performers creep and crawl out of darkened corners of the unassuming space, thanks to Brittany Trymbulak’s lighting design.

Special credit goes to Zahra Garrett and Micaela Slotin, the stage management team, who have made this intricate production feel seamless and safe: producing immersive theater is no easy feat, to say nothing of immersive theater in which the performances are literally in the air, so their labor is deeply felt and appreciated.

The performances themselves are exquisite but made all the more hypnotizing by the overarching story: two naïve podcasters are investigating the haunted Arts at the Armory building, but what was a cutesy episode idea quickly devolves into a deadly demon-hunting mission.

Tim Ellis’ script and the production’s overall tone is more sweet than spooky – light on jump scares but big on puns (10 percent off your next Casper mattress, anyone?!), which I found endlessly delightful. The acrobatic ghosts are utterly endearing, standouts including a 1980s paranormal investigator-turned-spirit with a crush on one of the podcasters and a creepy caretaker who is tired of shepherding spirits across the veil and just wants to finish sweeping the floor.

This is Boston Circus Guild’s first Cirque of the Dead since lockdown, and the lighthearted tone is much appreciated. The real world right now is terrifying enough: an evening of silly jokes, beautiful acrobatics, and radical teamwork is just what many of us need.

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