The Paradise Circus

A little-known theatre hosts a lesser-known play and the result is a theatrical triumph. It’s hats off to anyone who had anything to do with discovering James Purdy's The Paradise Circus and bringing it to fruition in its world premier at The Playground Theatre.

A gripping, mesmerising and enthralling experience.

James Otis Purdey was born in the summer of 1914 in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as Hicksville, Ohio. Five years later his family moved and his parents went through an acrimonious divorce in 1930. He gained a teaching degree in French, a master’s in English and went on to teach Spanish for nine years. He settled in Chicago where he was soon mingling with the great names of the arts world, absorbing African American culture and embracing the bohemian lifestyle. The songs and music in The Paradise Circus arise out of this background in the same way that the conversation of the father connects with having steeped himself in the language of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, while the boys utter the rural speech of the Midwest. The work is in no way religious, yet it resonates with the story.

Arthur Rawlings (Tim Woodward) spends his time lamenting the loss of his son, killed in the Great War, whose memory he idolises to the extent that he can see no good in either of his other two boys, Joel (Sam Coulson) and Gregory (Joshua Ward). They sit in the yard painting carousel horses for the carnival, appearing none too bright. They are told of their dead brother’s greatness and their own stupidity on every encounter with their brutal father. Giuseppe Onofrio (Peter Tate), master of the travelling circus, makes a surprise appearance and presents Rawlings with an offer which will change everyone’s life. In the ensuing malaise neither the counsel of his lifelong friend Dr Hallam (Mark Aiken) nor the comfort of his housekeeper Minnie Cruickshank (Debra Penny) can assuage the anguish, guilt and remorse that begins to overwhelm him. In desperation he turns to the local soothsayer, shaman, medicine woman and fortune teller known as the Witch of Hebblethwaite, Alda Pennington (Sophie Ward). She exercises extraordinary power over those who visit her. Rawlings follows her instructions as the consequences of his initial folly mount up.

The casting for this production has created a sublimely balanced ensemble of actors each of whom is able to fashion a character that perfectly fits the role. Woodward commences with the brashness and bombast of a towering father who is yet in despair. He carries off the drip-feed of self destruction with Lear-like intensity, leaving him a sad, foolish and sick man. As his strength fails, his sons’ power ascends. Coulson and Ward bond beautifully as the downtrodden brothers, surviving together emotionally in the face of their fathers endless undermining. They retain the simplicity and naivety of rural boy throughout yet manage to grow in stature as their fortunes change, finally discovering the strength to stand up to the man who has such little faith in them, while revealing the extent to which they have become emotionally hardened by their upbringing.

Penny creates a classic mature maid, dutifully pottering about the house but reveals the distress under her daily mask when she too meets the Witch. Meanwhile, Aicken retains the clinical composure of his profession combined with an analytical mind and an excess of often unwelcome insightfulness. Interacting with all of these characters Ward gives a stunning performance as the Witch. Forget the images from Macbeth. With her long flowing hair, impeccable posture and divine diction she is akin to a goddess, fearless in making the truth hurt; one who commands and is not to be interrupted or fooled with but merely obeyed.

There are further components that add to the magic of this production. Set and costume designer Cecilia Trono contrasts the realism and historical accuracy of her wardrobe with the phantasy carousel that provides the stage. The wood flooring is immediately credible as the interior of the house, yet above it all are the quadrant drapes that suggest the circus tent. It is a joy to behold and makes the thought of this play being presented in any way other than the round inconceivable. The only trick missing is the revolve, but the budget here is not that of the National Theatre! All of this is enveloped in a sensitive and unobtrusive lighting plot from Sherry Coenen that enhances each scene. Finally music and songs are added to the mix that heighten it’s moods and period setting, led by Darren Berry with Salim Sai.

All of this achievement comes under the deft direction of Anthony Biggs. He finds that Purdy’s ‘eccentric blend of 'Wes Anderson' style of story-telling, compelling characters, and beguiling narrative is both entertaining and unsettling’. It certainly is and he has raised it to a level that provides a gripping, mesmerising and enthralling experience.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

A bewitching tale from ‘a singular American Visionary' the New York Times.

In the deep Mid-West old miser Rawlings pines for his perfect boy killed in The Great War. His two younger sons, neglected by their father, waste their lives away painting beautiful horses for the merry-go-round. When the enigmatic ringmaster of a travelling circus pays an unexpected visit, he makes the old man a terrible but tempting offer. Wracked with guilt over his decision, in desperation Rawlings is forced to turn to Alda Pennington for help. But, salvation doesn’t come cheaply at the home of the witch doctor. 

James Purdy is the lesser-known titan of American twentieth century literature. Celebrated by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Edith Sitwell, he is described by Gore Vidal as ‘an authentic American genius’, Purdy’s influence stretches far beyond his fame.

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