Cirque Berzerk | Beneath the Big Top

Citizen LA | Citizen LA

Days before the 1st night premiere of “Beneath,” the greatest show ever to appear at Downtown’s LA State Historic Park, a real-life circus scene plays out at the former ‘cornfield’ where Cirque Berzerk is setting up their Big Top tent.

A pink-haired, muscled lady drives a forklift, a rosy-cheeked little person guides a five-ton semi truck, the ringmaster,Kevin Bourque, a wizard-man with long dreads, threads steel loops, surrounded by graceful nymphs rolling giant steel poles.

‘Costumed’ in funny, pointed Chinese Tiki hats, the ensemble tends to break out in spontaneous song as they labor along in the mid-day heat.

A distant audience of uniformed State Park and Recreation Officials keep close watch with binoculars making certain no clown dares dishevel any State-owned dirt. Not without purchasing a $6000 archeological survey. When one of Berzerk’s Local 80 crew threatens to dislodge a small slab of concrete, a State Park power ranger rushes in to the rescue. The “object” must not be touched…no, they’re not kidding! Oh, and for another slight trip up, there’ll be no 6-inch trench digging for electrical wiring placement. What kind of Circus is going on here?!

I learn I’m smack in the midst of a last-ditch, tent-pitch Leucocratic rig-a-morale that could wind up being a showstopper. Since the ‘cornfield’ site became an Historic Park—the place where Chinatown and the Union Station Railway allegedly originated—no groundbreaking, let alone 36′ deep tent staking will be permitted. Not at the risk of impaling an antique teacup or, perhaps, buried power line.

Cirque Berzerk weighed in with a unique, tent-raising solution; using trench plates instead of stakes…except the day’s first attempt didn’t take. The plates weren’t heavy enough to prevent the big top from toppling over.

Cirque Berzerkers re-appealed to the State and, now that it seems someone forgot to do an archeological survey, it’s also a pricey City and/or County permit matter.

As the ‘Red Tape’ unravels it’s becoming clear there’s more at stake for Cirque Berzerk than the mere cost of covering the survey. If a teacup or other relic DOES turn up there’ll be carbon dating studies, Chinese History consultants: CURTAINS on the Big Top show…fo’ sho’!

Berzerk’s founders, Bourque and his wife, Suzanne Bernel, huddle with their crew chief “Roo,” Andrea Ruane, artistic director/choreographer Neal Everett, set designers Charlie Nguyen and Carl Hoagland, lighting designer, Dan Reed, stage manager, Christine Nash, principle performer, Eric Gradman, and other trusted “family members” on hand. Bourque’s final decision is to dig deeper into his personal savings and rent heavier trench plates—the heaviest made; still there’s no guarantee on those.

“This was the year we’d either buy our house or put on the show of our dreams,” says Bourque. Bernel, an amazing ‘silks’ aerial acrobat performer in the show is drenched in sweat and dust from the day’s toils and foibles. “This is a diva-free troupe,” she explains, “Everyone pitches in when and where needed.” The couple shares a secret, reassuring smile, the show must go on…maybe.

These folks are no strangers to weathering adversity. Having emerged from the alkali desert plains of Burning Man, they’re salty troupers who’ve performed in 80 mph winds and 110 temps. Berzerk is a sister spin-off from the popular, electronic dance band, “Mutaytor” that originated eight years ago on the Burning Man “Playa” to percussionist/composer Bourque’s drumbeat and the rhythmic swirls of a few fire dancers. More musicians, dancers and assorted Burning Man talent chimed in and “Mutaytor” gained fame as one of the hottest acts on and beyond the Playa. A couple years back at Burning Man, when an especially virulent dust storm laid into and wrecked their electronic equipment, the troupe tented itself next time, rigged it with trapeze rings, drew in some top-notch aerial acrobatic performers and voila’ Cirque Berzerk was born.

“Beneath,” composed by Bourque and choreographed principally by Everett, a multi-muscle talent who also designs fantastic costumes and flies through the air on fire…almost literally on fire at the media invite dress rehearsal, phew!…is Berzerk’s first full-length musical production. The speechless musical is loosely inspired by the untold tragic Greek myth of Eurydice, the bride of Orpheus. In the classic Myth, Eurydice is condemned to ever after in Hades’ Underworld. She vanishes from Orpheus’ site, and all of Greek Mythology, when Orpheus fails to spare her from death by breaking a vow to Hades. Bourque picks up where the ancient Greeks left off on the Eurydice  story thread. “Beneath” follows a modern-day Eurydice through the Underworld—a most lively, bizarre place inhabited by freakish Circus clowns, naughty cabaret girls and girl scouts, contortionists, stilt-walkers, trapeze artists, a swinging band and lots of twirling fire.

The new trench plates arrive and are anchored around the flattened-out tent canvas. Some seventy-five cast members, crew and a few volunteer suckers, like me, who can’t resist the can-do spirit, tighten our Tiki’s for luck as much as hardhat value, if ANY. We post up two-on at each torque pole stationed around the canvas.

“This is why they first brought Elephants into the Circus,” says Bernel, “to raise the Big Top.” “Roo,” lifts her megaphone. On the count of three, we’re to step right up and heave like beasts… “THREE!” Within grunt-filled seconds our pointy-headed shadows disappear beneath us. The big top’s flown up and we’re standing under it. Everyone cheers! It’s so thrilling I’m ready to join the Circus right then and there!

The tent-raising fiasco is one of many hurdles I see Cirque Berzerk overcome every time I check in with them. For one, Nguyen and Hoagland’s magnificently surreal set must be re-designed to accommodate a fire-safety check. Fabrics are struck from the set unless they’re made flame-retardant to LAFD standards. An exquisite, huge, drape Purse set piece is blocked out—meaning new ‘blocking’ on certain show numbers or scenes. Of course, with limitless budget ‘purse strings’ the fabric could be treated and stay in the show but it’s all a juggling act on a shoe string.

The worry over set fabric seems hypocritical to me when there’s dry-as-hell straw strewn all over the Park, including underfoot inside the big top. But the straw was already there courtesy of the State Parks Bureau…it’s not an issue. The Berkzerker’s aren’t complaining, they merrily co-operate and even compliment the Fire Inspector to me on the fact that he’s explaining his reasons for the changes. “We’re learning a lot about fire exit strategies, City safety standards,” Bernel says appreciatively, “instead of being ordered to do something with no rhyme nor reason.”

During the media dress rehearsal, there’s a little flying fire scare at the finale. The Fire Marshall requests a post show re-run through and by opening night the scene’s been re-blocked including a way lowered trajectory level on the hand-held, flying flame torches.

At last, opening night arrives. It’s a box office sell-out at the door and the next three nights will soon be pre-sold out as well. The audience is thrilled with the imaginative, lavish sights and sounds Cirque Berzerk has brought to Downtown. Everything gels together seamlessly. I’m especially impressed with the professionalism, spot on skill and most of all the high-energy level in every performance and performer-slash-tent rigger-slash-stage hand-slash-bureaucratic out runner on the boards. Each and every one of these unpaid, volunteer Cirque Berzerk troupers have well earned an ovation here for years to come. Now, if we can keep them from running away to a, say, Vegas Circus where many of these performers could pass muster just as well.