Circus Circus
By Eric Welch and Brian Walker

Directed by George Bailey

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley.  All rights reserved.

The debate over whether marijuana is a justifiably illegal substance has raged for the better part of a century. Ever since early twentieth century paper peddlers rallied to extinguish hemp from giving them competition, and sensationalist anti-weed propaganda appeared in the publications of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst, it has been successfully demonized over the decades to the point where pot peddlers arguably serve harsher prison sentences than rapists and murderers.

That is the central theme behind Circus Circus, a thought-provoking and surreal new play by actor and new playwright Eric Welch and seasoned vet Brian Walker, and also the premiere production of a new theater company in the Louisville area – Loyalty Productions.

It’s not a new viewpoint to be sure; the 1936 camp classic film Reefer Madness was an attempt to further terrify audiences of the devil weed and only succeeded in making it look like a good time (to the point that in the late 1990s it inspired a stage musical that makes comedic commentary on a lot of the same themes as Circus Circus). Even more recent fare like any Cheech & Chong or Harold & Kumar film further drives the point home.

But Circus Circus may be unique in that it takes a far more serious, dramatic and even tragic approach to the debate. Its tale of a basically good-hearted and decent young man who gets busted for selling ganja is at times inspiring and at other times painful to watch as we see our main protagonist put through constant abuse and inhumane treatment alongside pedophiles, murderers and cocaine dealers.

Welch & Walker’s script blends a reality-based storyline with a hyper-real circus setting, complete with an evil warden depicted as a ringmaster and clowns and showgirls as the prison guards. This was a clever idea that I thought more could have been done with; and along with some video screens that displayed a constant commentary on the proceedings, it ultimately seemed more of a distraction than a complement to the action.

That’s a minor complaint, though, and is more than made up for by strong direction by George Bailey and a uniformly strong cast of actors. Welch in particular makes a lasting impression as our protagonist Robert; his raw emotions that are laid bare never feel anything less than genuine, and he makes you feel every heartbreaking turn of the story. Also particularly memorable is Sean Childress as the Ringmaster/Warden, a role that is vile and repugnant and still made real despite all the surreal trappings it is wrapped up in. Jeremy Gutierrez is heartbreaking as a doomed cocaine dealer pining for his family on the outside, and Corey Long gives some surprising humor and pathos to a complete pervert.

I did feel that a few times the play got a little too preachy with some monologues that went on too long (I think the show’s point was made already with more subtlety), and there were some obvious attempts to stretch the running time. But overall I was captivated by the theatricality of it all. It moved me to tears at one point, and I can’t really think of any better recommendation than that.

A new theater company has emerged, and the Louisville theater community needs to take notice. Loyalty Productions has made an impressive debut with their original play Circus Circus, an entertaining production that definitely will make you think, even if you don’t necessarily agree with its message.

Circus Circus

Starring Christina Biller, Sean Childress, Andy Epstein, Kayla Gill, Deanna Gillespie, Jeremy Gutierrez, Robert Hatfield, Corey Long, Taylor Olivia Roebuck, Eric Welch and Benjamin Wood

July 12-22, 2012

The MeX Theatre

The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY, 40202