REVIEW: Toronto Circus Riot
Christine H. Tran reviews LookUp Theatre’s Toronto Circus Riot:
Amiable ambivalence is the star of Lookup Theatre’s Toronto Circus Riot. Are you looking for a politically charged dramatization of the 1855 Clown vs. Firefighter brothel-brawl-turned-riot, an event which arguably modernized the Toronto police force (for better or worse)? Toronto Circus Riot is not that show. Now, if you’re looking for a slapstick take on this little-known but colourful chapter of Toronto history, this charming circus is more up your red-lit, red-nosed alley.
For those unacquainted with Toronto’s clown vs. cop histories, here it goes: in 1885, S.B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus made a fateful post-show victory lap to a brothel, where the troupe encountered the members of Toronto’s Orange Order, or “Orangemen” (an Irish Protestant group who ran various rackets, from protection to fire services). The instigating act of violence remains lost to history but fighting spilt into the streets over the next evening. Although there were no fatalities, the failure of police authorities to intervene resulted in a humiliating trial and scandal that deeply weakened Orangeman hold over the city, paving the way for city power to seize the monopoly on law (and violence).
For director and creator Angola Murdoch, Toronto’s alt-police failure is our comedy gain. Audiences are treated to role-play as Victorian spectators, not only to that iconic brawl, but to the full-length circus act which precipitated the violence at King and Jarvis on the infamous 1885 night.
As I check into the barely-paved grounds outside the tent, located on Sterling Rd. in Toronto’s Junction, I am greeted by a menagerie of human animals in costume. It is admittedly fun to indulge my inner children by petting human rhinos and feeding fish to a cloth puppet pelican. This pre-show seems to delight the real child audience members.
The broad appeal of Toronto Circus Riot rests on two tentpoles: its strong performances and impressive visual imagination. Standouts of the charming cast include vivid and agile performances from Lara Ebatta (as both circus performer and sex worker Mary Anne #3), as well as Kris Siddiqi (Rodrigo the “Chair Boy”). As our clowns lead us from tent to brothel, charmingly dynamic banter and a gift for improvisation sustain our attention. The improvisational skill of the cast—from clowns to Orangemen, and especially the cast of sex workers—is the show’s most endearing point. “Somebody shield this poor abandoned orphan!” an Orangeman beckons to a young audience member who left without an umbrella on that damp opening night.
The show’s climax is not in the titular riot, but rather its well-staged brothel. An erotic silk rope routine unravels gracefully yet comedically thanks to the work of lighting designer Vanita Butrsingkorn. The sharp fight direction of Collen Snell is all at once tense, funny, and aesthetically impressive. Towing the line between erotic and farcical, the blank cheque of the famed historical brawl is impressively signed with joke ink. With Zita Nyarady’s dramaturgical work, the world is not a stage but a circus, where all the players are performers, and all power—be it sexual or state—is farcical.
Call me disappointed Nyarady’s dramaturgy and the show in general don’t further push the co-relationship between clowning and authority. In sustaining the slapstick tone from tent to brothel to courthouse, Toronto Circus Riot suggests that, in life’s circus, we are all its clowns—objects of parody and violence. I just wish the show had more to say about the nature of power and performance. Is it fair to say Toronto Circus Riot “trades” in the historical imagery of gangs, police, and violence on settled land when it has so little to say back? After all, not all “troupes” were ever deemed equal in the eyes of city law enforcement. As I write this review, the conservative outrage against Pride Toronto’s exclusion of uniformed police officers has further underscored the historically less-than-amusing relationship between marginalized communities and police. No one expects a complex political treatise in circus form, but it feels somewhat insufficient to clown around this intersection of city history, one with tangible consequences for those who cannot scrub off the target of their circus paint at home.
Of course, it would be disingenuous to call the show toothless. There are hints of a sharper political edge, perhaps left over from an earlier draft: the show is self-reflexively Victorian in its circus acts, including a catchy ditty where Queen Victoria’s governance is compared to a hen laying eggs. Siddiqi almost steals the show as the “Victorian Chair Boy,” a Queen’s throne servant who doesn’t know his place. Why didn’t this sharp attention to time and place sustain to scenes outside of the circus tent?
Toronto Circus Riot shows little interest in weighing the psychic violence that reliance upon about police systems—racketed or not—means in a settler state. This oversight is echoed by Murdoch’s relegation of Indigenous land acknowledgements to the final minutes of the night. It was a disappointing move for a show so otherwise attentive to the absurd violence that entails when humans are obliged to share space with each other.
Christine H. Tran is a writer and scholar whose work attends to the genealogies of racialized and gendered labour in pop culture and digital technology. She assists at Brick: A Literary Journal. Her writing has been featured in untethered, The Trinity Review, Train, ATB Publishing, and other places. She completed her SSHRC-funded Master’s in English at York University and will be joining the University of Toronto Faculty of Information this fall as a PhD Student and Resident Junior Fellow at Massey College.