True artistic discoveries—relatively secret revelations that unfold before one’s eyes—are few and far between, even for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time watching and thinking about theater and film. But every once in a while a group like Suspended Cirque, an under-the-radar band of aerial performers, all heart but no budget, comes along to remind us of art’s very purpose. The young company’s latest show, Speak Easy, like their first three, had a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it run over at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO. Some high-flying patron needs to give this troupe a permanent home or artistic residency before the bloated Cirque du Soleil scoops them up.
Speak Easy takes place in 1947 on the last night of the fictitious Speak Easy Jazz Club—a smart use of the Galapagos space itself, the only bar in NYC to boast a 1,600-square-foot lake along with its stage. While the attention to glamorous makeup and costumes, and gravity-defying choreography on often homemade ropes and trapezes remains a constant (some of the equipment is hand-built since no designer crafts exactly what they need), the show differs from prior productions in its use of a singer (Victoria Lecta Cave) and live jazz band, and an on-the-ground storyline in lieu of aerial vignettes. The tiny troupe, made up of Michelle Dortignac, Angela Jones, Kristin Olness, Joshua Dean, and Ben Franklin, now take on actual roles with Mr. Franklin playing Speak Easy owner Jack Jameson Jr., a gracious host still nursing a wounded heart broken by Ms. Lecta Cave’s Vicky Lee, who left him for the USO.
What hasn’t changed is the wow factor, evidenced by the amount of both twentysomething and middle-aged audience members’ jaws dropping and eyes lighting up like little kids. You just haven’t experienced a showstopper like “Big Spender,” which closes out the first of two acts, until you’ve seen it danced to in midair by three sexy women for whom both ropes and each others’ bodies are mere extensions of their own limbs. Or “Just a Gigolo,” in which the lovelorn Jack contorts his over-six-foot frame into a cocoon upon the line “I ain’t got nobody.” Or the sultry “Worrisome Heart,” in which Kristen Olness, as Sassy Sue, conveys both pride and ache on rigging high above our heads. Then there’s Joshua Dean as handyman Fred, spinning faster and faster near the ceiling—in the body language equivalent to jazz’s scat—as Jack turns the ropes below and encourages him with exclamations of “That’s it, Fred!” And this is all before the stunning grand finale comprised of four performers on three giant hoops, who resemble nothing less than stylish marionettes come to life.
Most importantly, though, these “athlete artists”—as my sister dubbed them—have a passion that’s both palpable and intimate. During intermission, the woman seated to my right in our cozy red booth took note of my scribbling, asked if I knew the troupe, then immediately began sharing her enthusiasm with me. My sister impulsively reached out to grasp Olness’s hand after one particular number that took place so close the aerialist’s foot nearly touched her face. There’s an innate human need to connect with transcendence, with artists who seem able to touch the sky. By the end of Speak Easy, a pure joy was radiating throughout the Brooklyn art space, bouncing off its cavernous walls. And then in an instant it was back down to Earth. As the euphoric crowd filtered out the five artists that only moments before had soared like birds began breaking down their rigging, making way for the incoming late night show.
Suspended Cirque’s Speak Easy is back in NYC at DUMBO’s Galabpagos Art Space. Schedule: All Sundays in April at 8pm. Pre-show at 7:30 pm. For tickets click here.