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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Ariana MufsonIf you're a fan of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and all things dark and twisted, get yourself to Cirque Berzerk's newest creation: BENEATH. Conceived by Kevin Bourque (who also composed the terrific score played live at each performance) and Suzanne Bernel at Burning Man, this alternative circus invokes gothic and German expressionistic imagery, creating an event filled evening from the moment you step on the LA State Historic park grounds.
The mood is set before the circus begins—fire rims the entrance sign. Now and then flames sprout from two large canisters behind the grounds, with a pop loud enough to startle you from your gawking. If you like to picnic, the park is an oasis within industrial downtown Los Angeles with plenty of greenery to lay down a blanket, and quite a few picnic tables provided by the circus. A hatchet wielding stilt walker seems slightly drunk as he stumbles around looking for a victim, and costumed performers mill about. 21+ guests get free access to the "Berzerk Lounge" an hour before the show, where you can play antique pinball tables, sip a cocktail from the bar, or peruse goth-themed clothing items and wares for sale—watch out, the steel plated corsets are pricey. Thankfully, food and drink are allowed into the tent — it's hard to say no to freshly popped kettle corn.
Once inside, there isn't a bad seat in the 1500 seat house—which makes the $25 cheap seats quite a steal. In typical Los Angeles fashion, the circus starts late—and things get going at a slow pace. The narrative follows an "every girl" in a red dress who our MC explains is sick of the monotony of life and the faceless office drones who surround her (an energetic piece entitled "The Briefcase"). As must happen for the plot to thicken, she takes her own life and ends up BENEATH (the show's theme and title) where our MC takes her on a dark and ghoulish journey through a rag-tag circus of the dead.
Although this narrative might be somewhat necessary to provide a book end to the various acts, it doesn't quite work as a throughline—our girl isn't charismatic enough to carry us through her journey, and when we finally see her perform her talents don't quite match up to some of the other artists. Fortunately, she's a stronger presence in the second act, which overall succeeds better as a whole than the first.
It's hard to nitpick with a show that so clearly knows its strengths and weaknesses. The fun here is the experience and the fact that the circus defies expectations. These may be a rag tag group of "circus rejects" but they never hold back. Sure we've seen a contortionist before, but never one quite so voluptuous. The same goes for Act one's highlight "Dig it Down," a unique take on a trampoline act that had the audience cheering for more. All of the aerial pieces were entrancing, especially when presented with no net, and the finale was appropriately full of fire. Still, the highlight of the show may have been the "Death Dance" of two lovers doomed to dance together for eternity which was not only beautifully presented, but jaw droppingly executed. Overall, this troupe features talent every bit as strong as what you'd see in a more typical circus—with a murderous clown and vulgar midget to boot. After the performances, there's a post-show party featuring "Vaud & The Villains" [http://www.vaudandthevillains.com].
Cirque Berzerk is an event , not just a show. And while the narrative needs work in connecting the acts, the Berzerk still delivers and entertains because of the strong performers. For those who might be apprehensive about attending (with or without kids) there's really nothing too bloody or scary, just sexy and twisted. But don't expect the sleek and stylized Cirque du Soleil. Everything is raw and gritty, from the eclectic costumes to the sets. If you're at home with Tim Burton and don't find the erotic offensive, this is the circus for you. It's easy to forget that you're at an extravaganza of the bizarre, and easier still to enjoy the spectacle.