The modern animal-act-eschewing circus is in a rut. Certain versions are more likely to disgust than amaze, what with the nipple weights, nasal spikes, and nasogastric tubes. Others are plagued by "inspirational" schmaltz, metaphysical tumbling, and Euro clowns. It almost makes you yearn for the beasts -- roaring lions, prancing horses, awkward penguins.
San Francisco's New Pickle Circus skips the critters but breaks from the nouveau-circus playbook by giving its latest production, Birdhouse Factory, a theaterlike story line and placing it in an era that's ripe with possibility: 1940s industrial America, a time of hulking machinery, thick with gears and pulleys and pistons and shrouded in smoke, a future nearly impossible to fathom. Inspired by cartoonist Rube Goldberg's chimerical contraptions, the factory is outfitted with improbable equipment and tools; the plot centers on the manufacture of an appropriately superfluous product: the biggest and most perfect birdhouse ever.
Of course, the learning curve to master the equipment is staggering, an HR nightmare, hence the need for machinists with specialized skills. A steam pulley, for example, is powered by a gymnast riding a giant wheel that raises a hoop holding an aerialist. Unicyclists crank a large turntable that holds a cadre of superhumanly stretchy contortionists. Chinese-pole acrobats take over a steam pipe, and a man teetering on a Rola Bola balancing board spins a large fan. Members of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe are borrowed from China for their skill with pagoda bowls and hoop diving. Somehow, amid all the bodily feats, a birdhouse gets built, accompanied by bursts of frenetic drumming by assembly-line workers. Imagine Charlie Chaplin's industrial romp Modern Times crossed with the Flying Wallendas.
Admission is $15-38
Birdhouse Factory sprang from the imagination of Chris Lashua, a veteran of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as well as Cirque du Soleil, who spends most of his time onstage sandwiched inside a German wheel (a menacing pair of metal hoops joined by ladderlike rungs), trapped in circumvolutions like a spinning coin. In developing the show, Lashua enlisted the help of Pickle Circus alumni and fellow Cirque vets Aloysia Gavre, Sandra Feusi, and Sam Payne, all of whom have starring roles. Gavre specializes in the circeau, a spinning aerial hoop, and Chinese-pole experts Feusi and Payne premiere their new acrobatic tango before taking it to Paris in February. It's a reunion of sorts for the creators, who all learned the ropes from Lu Yi, master trainer at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, before going on to their respective international careers.
Together the balancing, tumbling, contorting, and death-defying tricks make for the kind of spectacular eye candy that could earn millions in Vegas. Don't miss it just because you've grown bored with other, lamer cirque shtick.