Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Circus 1903
National Tour
Review by Garrett Southerland

Circus 1903
Photo by Phillippa Carisbrooke
"Step right up and see the Greatest Show on Earth!" In the not too distant past, one could buy a bag of popcorn and sit under the big top to see colorful lights and costumes, daring feats, and animals galore, but with the recent closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to experience the tradition of the American circus. The national touring production of Circus 1903, currently playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center, attempts to recapture that magic of a bygone era.

Circus 1903 is an old-fashioned circus adapted for the stage, framed by a rather flimsy plot about a circus coming to town in—you guessed it—1903. While more modern-era circuses have dazzled with theatrical makeup, glamorous costumes, and exotic music (think Cirque du Soleil or the Disneyfied presentation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in recent decades), this production goes back to the basics with an intentionally vintage feel. Simpler strategies don't make for fewer pleasures, though; we are chaperoned by a master of ceremonies, Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (a delightfully funny David Williamson), who calls a child up to the stage and asks, "Do you believe in magic?" We are encouraged by extension to suspend our disbelief and go along on this journey with a troupe of acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, and even elephants.

The performers who showcase their acts are top notch. Highlights include Senayet Assefa Amara, who astounds—and at times terrifies—audiences with her contortions, and Gediminas Pavlovicius's amazing balancing act. The true highlight of the production is the set of intricate elephant puppets brought to life by Tony-winning designers Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller, who worked on the recent Broadway production of War Horse. There is one large elephant, operated by a handful of people, and one baby elephant that is worn more like a costume by a single puppeteer, and the two of them seem to come fully to life. My only disappointment with the elephants is that they aren't given more to do. They also made me wish for more of a menagerie, perhaps including lions, tigers and horses.

Other memorable and enjoyable moments arrive when Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade continues to invite audience members up, finding ways to weave them into the show. The strangest omission is the absence of clowns. Though Ringmaster Willy provides ample humor throughout, the stylized antics of the American clown seemed glaringly missing (perhaps a relief to anyone who may suffer from coulrophobia).

Director Neil Dorward has assembled a high-quality creative team. Costumes by Angela Aaron and lighting by Paul Smith add lovely touches to the production, though nothing is particularly memorable. There is no live orchestra, forcing the performers to time their acts very rigidly to recorded music. There were occasional miscues of music at the performance I saw, which briefly disrupted the flow of the act.

Whether you are a kid or kid at heart, there is something for everyone at Circus 1903. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, which felt like a comfortable length for the children in the audience. This production is a great opportunity to relive a time when the circus was the most magical show people might ever see and remember when it truly was "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Circus 1903 is presented by SunTrust Broadway, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC through October 1st, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at,, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit

Director: Neil Dorward
Composer: Evan Jolly
Puppetry Director: Mervyn Millar
Puppets Designer: Mervyn Miller and Tracy Waller for Significant Object
Rigging Designer and Tour Technical Director: Vincent Schonbrodt Technical Director: David Simpson
Lighting Design: Paul Smith
Costume Design: Angela Aaron
Scenic Design: Todd Edward Ivins

Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade: David Williamson
Icarian Games: George Landkas-Coronas, Miles Ashton Hay
Les Incredibles: Louis Aussibal, Samuel Imbeau
The Cycling Cyclone: Florian Blummel
The Elastic Dislocationist: Senayet Assefa Amara
The Flying Fins: Artur Ivankovich, Petter Vastermark, Ilya Kotenyov
The Sensational Pavlovicius: Gediminas Pavlovicius Ensemble: Johan Lopez, Jonathan Lopez, Maria Jose Pontigo
Puppeteers: Luke Chadwick-Jones, Daniel Fanning, Nyron Levy, Chris Milford