Big Top Machine
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2005
Big Top Machine, a sly and sometimes heartbreaking celebration of wonder, is also an inquisition into our collective loss of capacity for same; it is, furthermore (and perhaps above all else) a showcase for the remarkable and very particular talents of Kevin Augustine, an actor, playwright, and puppeteer whose work has amassed a small cult following and whose most recent play, Animal, has just been published by NYTE. Big Top Machine pre-dates the more mature and more narratively assured Animal by about five years; this splendid revival at the invaluable Brick Theater in Williamsburg offers a welcome second look at this delightful piece for those who have seen it before, and a thrilling introduction to Augustine's oeuvre for those who have thus far not had the pleasure. Either way, don't miss it.
The show begins, disarmingly, with an old bum, barefoot and in a tattered old suit, assailing the audience on the subject of heroes. What, he asks, makes us feel awe in these all-knowing, cynical times of ours? And then he turns back time a little, and recalls his days as Ramsey the Flying Man, the "hero" of the circus; in real life an ordinary guy named Stan, recovering from a broken marriage and looking to recharge his life by realizing his dreams of being extraordinary. Stan/Ramsey, clad in yellow unitard and a flowing red cape, climbs the big pole in the center ring and then flies off the top, some 250 feet in the air. Sure, he's abetted by some invisible wires: but he believes—and desperately wants us to believe—that it's authentic magic. Do we?
That's for you to decide; what's incontrovertible is the magic that Augustine and his collaborators make in realizing Ramsey's sweetly sad-sack story, with enormous wit, imagination, and theatricality. For the record, and to give much-deserved credit where it's due, those collaborators are: lighting designer Andrew Hill, sound designer Sean McPaul, props and costume designer Gloria Sun, and puppeteers Laura Emmanuel, Sophie Nimmannit, and Matthew Riggs.
Augustine plays at least a score of characters, often more than one at the same time (at one point, for example, he plays an entire classroom of unruly children). With the eerily human puppets that are his trademark, he creates several memorable personalities here, including a small boy named Jacob who steadfastly refuses to believe in the circus, and Frank the Ringmaster, who does still believe, though it takes a bunch of martinis every night to really do the trick.
Augustine sits in plain view behind another of his amazing puppet creations, a sideshow woman in a humble floral print dress, and—using his hands for hers—conjures a beautiful butterfly from an old leather box.
In the guise of a Siegfried & Roy-like lion tamer, he shouts foolish commands in faux-German and performs the silliest animal act you're ever likely to see.
And in a tour de force at the very beginning of Big Top Machine, he more or less turns himself into a puppet, with his black-shrouded assistants decking him out in various accessories (tie, hat, scarf, etc.) as he re-creates Ramsey's audition for the circus, playing all the parts with rapid-fire precision and perfect, hilarious timing.
The show's piece de resistance/climax is a jolting, thrilling deconstruction of Augustine's puppetry art. Watch this remarkable performer argue with himself—Frank the puppet versus Ramsey the hero: the actor debunks the artistry as just so much smoke and mirrors, and illusion and magic collide with reality and self-deception.
Me, I root for illusion in a case like this: Augustine and the circus that he creates in this show are 100% A-1 prime humbug, in the best Barnum tradition, and thank goodness for that. We always need something to marvel at. Big Top Machine is a grand place to begin.