by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
When I heard oohs and ahs from my nine year old daughter sitting next to me, I knew that Circus Juventas had mounted yet another wonderful production. The entire experience is compelling, and it starts before one even enters the Big Top. The grounds are beautifully manicured and foster a feeling of community as people arrive and talk outside. Performers offer up exquisitely designed longer programs, and craft beers and sodas are for sale at an outdoor booth. Once inside, popcorn and candy are available near a merchandise table before being ushered into the main performance area. And the production is a thing of wide-eyed popcorn eating wonder.
For those not familiar with Circus Juventas, the nonprofit is a performing arts circus school. The founders, Dan and Betty Butler, met as teenagers in Sarasota, Fla., where they trained at Sailor Circus, one of the oldest circus schools in the country. In 1994, the Butlers started an after-school program, then known as Circus of the Star, in a neighborhood recreation center in Highland Park. Recognizing the passionate demand for circus classes and camps, the organization expanded and built the 21,000-square-foot Big Top in 2001, and was renamed Circus Juventas (for the Roman Goddess of Youth). Circus Juventas has now grown into the largest performing arts circus school in North America, serving over 2,500 students through year-round classes and summer camp programs and 50,000 spectators annually.
The organization stages two marquee shows a year, each featuring 70+ of the organization’s most advanced performers. Elizabeth “Betty” Betty Butler, co-founder and artistic director of Circus Juventas, develops a theme, often from classic tales, and collaborates with Katy McEwen, a Circus Juventas theater coach, summer show script writer, and co-artistic director of The Brave New Workshop.
True to its title, STEAM, Circus Juventas’ Summer 2018 production, is steampunk themed. The premise is a chance encounter between H.G Wells, author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, and Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. What ensues is a whimsical tour through the creations of the writers’ imaginations.
“My inspiration is drawn from a wide range of concepts: art, legend and lore, movies, books, and other aesthetic genres like steampunk,” said Betty Butler. “Our students have been immersed in the science fiction genre inspired by the 19th century steam-powered machines, and the idealistic H.G. Wells and enigmatic Jules Verne. And it all begins on a train platform in Paris with the gears grinding and the steam engines hissing.”
The stage is structured for both small area scenarios, such as a 7+ chair vertical acrobatic display, and for full arena performances. One of the examples of this is a marvelous aerial display of bicycles used gymnastically by a troupe of delightfully costumed performers. All of the the costuming is perfectly period with a dash of contemporary style. There are sky pirates and airships, hot air balloons and a mad scientist, with appearances by Morlocks, Dr. Moreau, and Captain Nemo. The production is literally and metaphorically transporting.
The tremendous talent and hard work is fantastically evident in STEAM. There are feats that are breath-taking, and my daughter watched some of them with her hands over her eyes, peering out between fingers. The entire performance is a magical experience, wholly envisioned and executed.
STEAM plays July 27 – August 12, 2018 at the Circus Juventas Big Top. Single tickets start at $18.50 and are on sale now through Ticketworks at 612-343-3390 or Circus Juventas Box Office at 651-699-8229, and online at http://www.ticketworks.com/cgi-bin/order2/ticketworks/pages/event.php?Event=5331