August 30-September 6, 2006

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Circo Killer

By Bill Forman

Although best known for its burgeoning schedule of folk troubadours, eclectic rockers and international music ensembles, Don Quixote's International Music Hall in Felton has quietly been pushing another agenda these last few years. I'm talking about venue booker Tom Miller's little known role as a circusmonger.

You see, it's one of the sad facts of 21st-century living that the circus are we once knew it is very much in decline.

Sure, you could have trekked over the hill last week to see the perennial Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, who are still being labeled elephant abusers by the not-exactly-radical Humane Society of America. (Besides which, there's something kind of cheesy about Herkules getting run over by a Jeep Wrangler.) Or you can catch the highfalutin Cirque du Soleil, who will be back this way in September with their Delerium shows which, like the Ringling spectacle, will be held in the less-than-intimate Hp Pavilion.

Who knows, maybe even the Jim Rose Circus, which spawned that geek sideshow fad back in its Lollapalooza days, will make a comeback.

But can any of that compare to the simple joys of watching a stilt-walking ringmaster with a thick Hungarian accent race a rolling-skating bear around the aisles of Don Quixote's?

Of course not.

I would have entirely missed Circo Romani the Sunday before last had I not heard its musical director, Zhenya Rock, performing earlier in the day on John Sandidge's live music show, Please Stand By (KPIG-FM 107.5). The founding guitarist/vocalist of the Red Elvises, Zhenya is based in Austin these days and touring with one lone drummer under the name Zeegrass.

I'd always been a sucker for the Red Elvises, ever since they made their film debut in the cult favorite, Six String Samurai. So hearing Zhenya playing what sounded suspiciously like demented art rock on his live-looped guitar and obligatory balalaika (a traditional Russian stringed instrument, though not the giant red one that the Elvises used to tour with), I couldn't resist a trip up to Felton to see them. The promise of a Gypsy circus complete with dancing bear sealed the deal.

The evening did not disappoint. The opposite of the high-tech entertainments to which we've all become so accustomed, the half-dozen members of Circo Romani got more mileage out of basic juggling, clowning and acrobatics than they had any right to, not least because of a wide-eyed exuberance that gave any weaknesses a folksy charm. Particularly impressive were the acrobatics and Stan Laurel-like theatrics of Mike Templeton as the Gadjo clown. It turns out that anyone who isn't a Gypsy is known as a Gadjo, although, as ringmaster Nick da-Creature points out, we can all have fun together regardless.

And that's just what happened by show's end as the troupe busted open a case of bear and invited the audience to dance with them. It takes a truly cold heart to turn down the opportunity to dance with a bear (OK, not a real bear, but he was on rollerskates). It's the kind of thing you can tell the grandkids about, that is, if you end up having grandkids and don't particularly care what they think about you.

So do keep an eye on Don Quixote's schedule--you never know when a circus, vaudeville or burlesque show is likely to pop up. And if you're up at Burning Man this week, Circo Romani have taken up residence there from Aug. 24 to Sept. 2. They might not be quite as traditional as those wandering bands of vaguely unsavory characters who would set up camp on the outskirts of town and stir up childhood dreams of running away with the circus, but they're the next best thing.

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