Stage Door Review
Brick Bros. Circus
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
written by Ann Powell, David Powell & Sharon Weisbaum, directed by Sharon Weisbaum
Puppetmongers Theatre, Toronto
Streaming March 10-24, 2021
“You have seen bricks in walls. You have seen bricks in bookshelves. Now see bricks in action!
I have long been a fan of Puppetmongers Theatre so it was with some dismay that I read that siblings Ann Powell and David Powell, who are Puppetmongers Theatre, are considering retiring as the company nears it 50th anniversary. It’s hard to believe so much time has gone by. The Powells are also planning to retire their entire repertory rather than passing it on to another generation. This means that the only Puppetmongers shows you will be able to see are those they have had recorded.
From March 10 to 24 their 1978 classic Brick Bros. Circus is available for viewing online. From April 14 to 28 The Miller and His Wife from 1974 plus its sequel from 1976 will be available. (Consult the Puppetmongers website puppetmongers.com.) I was lucky enough to see The Miller and His Wife live in 2014, but circumstances of one kind or another have previously prevented me from seeing Brick Bros. Circus. Therefore, when I learned there was a chance to see it, albeit online, I leapt at the opportunity.
Ann Powell and David Powell are expert in all sorts of puppetry but they are especially renowned for their work in advancing the cause of object puppetry, sometimes called object theatre. In object puppetry any inanimate object can become a puppet if the puppeteer moves it about in a purposeful manner. If the puppeteer chooses to give it a voice, the object seems even more alive.
This may seem extraordinarily simple. Every child, at least in the pre-video game world, has done this kind of puppetry in play. Determining what precisely happens psychologically and theatrically to make us willingly transfer the animating force from the puppeteer to the object is quite complex and, in fact, at least one doctoral thesis citing Brick Bros. Circus has been written in order to analyze what precisely is happening*.
Brick Bros. Circus is an absolute delight and in terms of object theatre has to be regarded as the apogee of Puppetmongers’ experimentation with this genre. In the world of puppeteering it is regarded as a classic, seminal in the development of object theatre.
The show begins with Ann and David in red-lapelled tailcoats like circus ringmasters of yore pushing in an orange wheelbarrow. We watch the Powells pull a miscellany of fabric, wires and objects of an indeterminate nature from the barrow and cast them on the floor. A sense of wonder is already engendered as we see the Powells take this mess on the floor and transform it into a circus stage with striped side panels and a proscenium stage with sliding curtains and a tasseled canopy. All the seemingly purposeless items cleverly come together in a single purpose.
We know the Powells are about to present an unusual puppet show by what they do next. Once the tent and the one-ring stage have been set up, Ann has a cute little hand puppet climb up one side of tent. This puppet David motions away in dismay. Then Ann takes out a marionette and has him tap-dance on the circus stage. This puppet David waves away in disgust. Finally, Ann takes out an arm-puppet of a pink cat which David shoos away and defiantly places a standard three-holed cored brick on the stage on its end, places a red clown nose on it and gestures as if to say, “This is what this show is about – not those other creatures”.
Donning miner’s helmets, the Powells hold safety cones up to their mouths and with kazoos trumpet the start of the show. David exclaims, “You have seen bricks in walls. You have seen bricks in bookshelves. Now see bricks in action!”
The 38-minute-long circus programme consists of nine acts and one interlude. All but one of the acts are performed by standard three-holed cored bricks wearing minimal costuming to suggest their function – skirts for the females, singlets for acrobats, headbands for martial artists and feathery gowns for female aerialists.
The acts mimic all the standards of an old-fashioned circus which the Powells satirize and celebrate simultaneously. There is the four-member Bildovitch family from the former Brikoslovakia on the teeterboard, ringmaster David taming the the Terrifying Wild Brick from Brickistan, the ten-holed Mme Brickiskova on the high trapeze, kung-fu playoffs “complete with violence and stereotyping” between a Canadian and an American champion, Trixie Labrique on the tight rope, an amazing brick contortionist from Asia, a brick chosen from the audience and shot out of a cannon and finally the strongwoman Samantha Stone, the “strongest brick in universe”.
Now the idea of having bricks perform circus acts is one that objectively is totally bonkers. The Powells credit the late Steve Hansen, The Puppet Man, and Loet Vos of the Toronto Museum of Childhood with the idea. So many circus acts have to do with elegance, flying, and action that lumpen bricks would appear to be the exact opposite of the type of puppet one would wish to use. Yet, as David shooing away of three different types of puppets indicates, bricks in action is the essence of the show.
In a scene of true genius the Powells, who say that no circus is complete without a clown, present Brikko the Clown, whom we met at the top of the show. They set him up downstage in a spotlight with his red nose on and then leave him as they join the audience. For 30 seconds they let Brikko simply stand there and absolutely nothing happens. In mock concern the Powells rush up to the stage and noting that Brikko has done nothing whisk him unceremoniously off the stage.
Although nothing happens this is, in fact, really a clown scene, since it is both funny and cuts right to the essence of what the show is all about. The humour is the Powells’ belief that they can leave an object on its own and expect to see any action. The very nature of object theatre is that, through complex psychological and aesthetic means, we the audience willingly transfer the energy of the puppeteers to the object they manipulate.
Children, for whom this sort of play is second nature, will simply enjoy the antics the bricks themselves without speculating on what is happening. Adults, however, will find themselves in the delectable position of knowing exactly what is happening on an objective level and still find themselves willingly regarding the bricks as acting in their own right.
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” in 1817 to explain how people become engaged with narratives they know to be fiction. Puppetmongers’ Brick Bros. Circus provides perhaps the most extreme and deliberately absurdist demonstration of the truth of Coleridge’s insight.
The Powells are clearly siblings who have not lost access to a child’s view of the world. Yet, they also have a sly sense of irony and metatheatricality that can notice that one of the bricks is “naked” and needs to have some sort of covering over his lower area. The conflicts of this dual vision of childlike belief and adult irony is what makes Brick Bros. Circus so hilarious. It is truly a show that both children and adults will adore. Families and lovers of pure theatre absolutely should not miss it. Indeed, this may be your only opportunity to see this show or The Miller and His Wife.
Brick Bros. Circus runs to March 24. The Miller and His Wife runs April 14 to 28. The Powells have been called “national treasures” and so they are. These two sublime confections will show you why.
*Ashby, J. B. (2015). From the Inside Out, from the Outside In: Devising in Canadian Puppet Theatre (PhD thesis). Retrieved from tspace.library.utoronto.ca.
Photo: Ann Powell and David Powell. © 2019.