The carpas, the traveling tent shows that entertained working-class audiences throughout Mexico and the Southwest during the 1920s and 1930s, offered a mixture of circus and vaudeville. "The time was filled with wonder and fantasy, not like now," says the narrator at the outset of ¡Carpa!, an energetic but elegiac salute to a vanished tradition. "All that magic just ran out, like air from a balloon you didn't even know had a leak in it."
Even before the house goes dark and the formal proceedings begin, much of that magic is restored, as clowns, acrobats, a strong man, a fortune teller, and twirlers of hoops and batons interact with the assembling audience. Soon, The Ringmaster takes charge, introducing, in turn, The Strongman, a mermaid named La Sirena del Golfo de México, twin Flyers who twirl on ropes above the ground, and The Fortune Teller. The first half of ¡Carpa!, written by Billy Muñoz, a member of the Jump-Start Performance Company, offers the facsimile of an old tent-show production. Particularly engaging are Sheila Sisler-Currie's transgendered impersonation of a muscled lifter of huge barbells and S. T. Shimi's turn as a mermaid confined to a tank wheeled across the stage. Dino Foxx's Ringmaster astounds the crowd with his own talent at swallowing fire.
The performers pull up stakes, but, while traveling to their next venue, the mermaid's tank is cracked. Cracks, too, develop within the fractious carpa family. La Sirena is preserved, temporarily, by immersion in a metal tub filled with salted water. But that leaves no salt to season the flavorless caldo served at the company's hilariously rendered communal dinner. "The end is near," prophesies the Fortune Teller. Declaring that: "We are done," The Ringmaster disbands the company and carries La Sirena del Golfo de México back into the Gulf of Mexico.
Muñoz is agile and arresting as El Payaso, a clown who serves as drudge for the despotic Ringmaster. But the text he created as playwright is under-developed, a mere pretext for evoking the vibrant but doomed glory of an old tent show. Sandy Dunn's gift for facial expression, gesture, and intonation is under-utilized in the role of The Fortune Teller. It is not mere carping to say that the play is neither a full-scale tent show nor a completely realized back-stage drama about a carpa company. Muñoz has attached a minimal frame to a circus minimus.
The result is a jaunty sampling of campy performances within the ironic context of an avant-garde contemporary theater group. Jump-Start, which often challenges sexual and ethnic taboos, is not known for G-rated material. However, ¡Carpa!, a bouncy launch to Jump-Start's new season, is jolly family fare, and the children who attended opening night seemed attentive to the pleasures of a tent show augmented by video sequences and period musical tracks. Neither La Sirena's jaded take on being an object of prurient interest, nor the misfortune that befalls one of The Flyers, dispels the production's manifest and merry good will.
By Billy Muñoz
Directed by Laurie Dietrich & Marisela Barrera
Jump-Start Performance Co.
Sterling Houston Theater
108 Blue Star
Through Sep 29
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