Cheers for Circus Smirkus: Wild West Performances Draw Big Island Crowds

By MARCUS TONTI

The big top, a blue-and-white-striped number festooned with green and yellow stars, beckoned to passersby from Old County Road. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy filled the air as one approached the tent, the sight of children already sticky with lemonade and sno-cones lightening the heart.

But all this was prelude. It was the show inside that really soared.

Circus Smirkus's eight performances at the West Tisbury school grounds this past weekend provided a whiz-bang, rollicking, virtually nonstop good time for all who had the good sense to attend. The Wild West-themed program featured cowpokes and varmints, cowgirls and rodeo clowns in a show jam-packed with a surprising diversity of aerial feats, classic circus entertainment and general tomfoolery.

It's what Oklahoma! might have been if Curly, Laurey and Will Parker had run away and joined the circus. Or perhaps part of Will Rogers's oeuvre, had he substituted a red clown's nose for the folksy political commentary that accompanied his famed rope tricks.

The team of 30-plus mostly teenaged troupers spent the better part of two hours vaulting, tumbling, dangling from the trapeze, soaring above the crowd, twirling hoops, juggling, doing lasso tricks, balancing on chairs, jumping ropes, walking the highwire, cavorting on stilts and unicycles and teeter-totters - it could have been exhausting if it weren't so danged entertaining.

Stagehands and troupe members themselves kept the show moving in a whirl of essentially constant activity, set pieces with clowns filling the gaps between more elaborate performances.

A crucial element of the program was the Route 7 Ramblers, a talented roots-music sextet featuring banjo, mandolin, accordion, fiddle, standing string bass and a drum set that played bluegrass-tinged tunes. Clad in overalls and other western wear, this band would have fit right in at a Dodge City saloon. Their music accompanied the show perfectly by offering traditional fare like Dueling Banjos, Buffalo Gals and I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, as well as a few non-C&W tunes - a little jazzy number to accompany a faux gunfight and even a prairie-inflected Brahms Lullaby.

Audience members - adults and older children - were swept up in the twang of the banjo and the rat-tat-tat of the drums, clapping in time at various points throughout the program even as "yee-hahs" and "yippee-kay-ays" erupted periodically.

But the youngest in the audience were too caught up in the spectacle before them to be so easily distracted. Children ringed the 60-foot ring, trying to take everything in - in some cases sitting literally slack-jawed, agape at the goings-on, and in all cases obviously delighted.

The smiles on the children's faces were mirrored throughout by the Smirkos, as troupe members are called, who constantly ran back and forth into the ring.

Costumed depending on their specialties in plaid shirts and blue jeans or gingham-accented leotards, cowboy hats and neckerchiefs were virtually ubiquitous, even for those who swung from the trapeze and even hung upside down.

These latter Smirkos - mostly young women but a few men - moved back and forth like human pendulums, gymnasts performing a kind of aerial ballet as they dangled from colorful silks or, at times, seemed to graze the roof of the tent above. Impossibly agile, this elaborately choreographed artistry dozens of feet in the air was one of the most appealing elements of the show.

Not to be outdone, the troupe's clowns were instantly recognizable in face paint, big floppy shoes and oversized pants. Consistent with the western theme, some wore chaps - although they looked in some cases as if they were cut from fuzzy bathroom rugs.

Particularly entertaining was a bit in which two clowns armed with water-filled buckets took turns spraying and spitting water at each other, culminating with a bucket of water down a pair of pants. Simply classic (although one wonders how thrilled parents will be when kids mimic that bit at home).

Augmenting the clown routines were sound effects from the band to accompany their pratfalls - cowbells echoing the smack of a ladder, and so forth.

Another highlight was the variety of juggling routines, as young women and men were lost in a swirl of balls, pins and flaming batons. In one case a juggler maneuvered five pins while perched on one foot on the wire.

At the show's end, one couldn't help but wonder if it was too late to pack his worries under a tent and catch a lift with the Smirkos as they head to their next gig. The sense of regret was pervasive as the band fired up their instruments one last time and the entire troupe ran into the ring, smiling and waving, inviting the audience to join in - playing, as they bid adieu, a tune that was predictable, perhaps even inevitable.

What was it? Let's put it this way, pardner: On behalf of all Islanders - Happy Trails, Smirkos, until we meet again.