In Q Artistry's oddball theatrical hit "ZirkusGrimm" (through July 27 at the Irvington Lodge), the circus feats, deliberately, aren't terribly awe-inspiring But the show's ambition certainly is. How often does Indianapolis get to see an original musical premiere, complete with able band, large cast (more than 25), uncompromised set, and spot-on costumes? If you answered "never," you're probably right. At least in recent memory. And the fact that it works as well as it does is fairly remarkable.
Q's impresario Ben Asaykwee sets "ZirkusGrimm" in a tattered German circus, where Grimm's fairy tales are told in lieu of amazing feats and animal acts. Lean times have made food scarce, we are told, leaving it up to us to imagine what happened to the former beast population. Mixing Paul Sills' Story Theatre techniques with decadent, Kander and Ebb style, "Zirkus" episodically offers inventively staged stories punctuated by hard-driving (if difficult to decifer) songs. We get The Fisherman and His Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and more, all in decidedly non-Disney fashion.
Fairy tale tweaking is nothing new on stage (and the Riding Hood segment doesn't bring anything that hasn't been seen in "Into the Woods"). But the "let's just get on with it" delivery is fun (narrative leaps are often made with a simple "blah, blah, blah") as are the self-deprecating, snarky asides. After matters take a surprisingly positive turn in one tale, for instance, one of our hosts notes that not all of fairy tales have sad endings. Another chimes in, "Only the good ones." Attitude rules here. An eye-roll often gets a bigger reaction than a punchline.
There's a kick, too, in the range of shapes and sizes in the cast, including a dark-eyed boy in a would-be acrobatic troupe sporting a sign pleading for help since this is not his real family. As its trio of ringmasters, Asaykwee is joined by the leaders of two other up-and-coming, innovative professional theaters, NoExit's Georgeanna Smith and Eclectic Pond's Thomas Cardwell. Each makes a strong presense in a show that doesn't care a whit about character development. Together they bring a dark, detached sexuality the likes of which is rarely seen on area stages. But the characters are essentially the same in the opening number as they are in the finale. Like a late-night joy ride, "ZirkusGrimm" doesn't really go anywhere, but it has edgy fun along the way.
What the show doesn't have is an editor. And with an overabundance of ideas, cast members, songs and stories, it needs one. As with attempts to theatricalize Edward Gorey's grim stories, "ZirkusGrimm" feels randomly constructed.
Based on its proven ability this summer to draw sell-out crowds, a revival wouldn't be surprising. Here's hoping the next time the "Zirkus" comes to town, it surgically tightens its text and clarifies its songs while keeping the same creepy spirit. In the meantime, kudos to Asaykwee and company for crafting an unexpectedly entertaining evening on the dark side.