First off, if you have a fear of clowns or the circus, this is not the show for you. If exposure therapy is the desired method of squashing phobias, prepare to be exposed, because Kinetic Arts Productions is not aggrandizing the title of its new show, “Beyond the Ring.” The eight performers rehabilitated the notion of the stage, all while dismantling the spatial relation between audience and performer.
The Kinetic Arts Center is a warehouse, renovated to accommodate feats of clownery and tomfoolery and is parked in Oakland. Upon entrance, audiences are treated to an assortment of chairs which face toward the “stage”: a diamond-shaped playground with walls situated to look like stifling castles and a backdrop smeared with faint blue and wispy clouds. It’s a strange dichotomy that is further explored by the entangled themes of comedy and gaslighting. By the end of the show, the entire building is disrupted and transformed into a madcap carnival supplemented by panoptic anxieties.
It’s hard to bestow a concrete definition on “Beyond the Ring,” because it traverses seamlessly through areas of performance art, improvisation, acrobatics and dance. As one performer gets bonked on the head with a toy club, another emerges to hook someone into an interpretive dance straight out of a ballet. The show is a patchwork of theatrics that engulf the root term “circus” into an adventurous demonstration of physicality.
The performance begins with actor Slater Penney, in doctor’s garb, advising the audience on how to respond when he brings out Jaron Hollander: with toothy smiles and uproarious laughter. Hollander is the director of “Beyond the Ring” while also doubling as a performer, with the rest of the cast playing loose parts of his psyche, running wild as they try and perform heart surgery on him. The entire purpose of the circus is to try and operate on Hollander, and the audience is another accessory for this deed.
The gravity of the title “Beyond the Ring” sets in once Hollander appears, stumbling and woozy. After roaming the stage for a minute, he does the impossible and passes over the foot-high ledge separating the stage from seating, and he barrels through the spectators. It’s important to note that these are professionals, and though they perform bewildering acts up close, there is little risk of harm to the audience, only to themselves.
The show does feature some impressive features of buffoonery, such as Hollander juggling while being operated on, or when Ross Travis, playing the atypical strong man who possesses a buried layer of gumption and cunning ingenuity, scales a nano-sized pole to survey the audience. The best performance came from Abigail Baird, whose gimmick is that the only way she could move her body was by a hoverboard. Without her character’s hardware, Baird is subjected to taking baby steps. As the charade continued, and as her attempts grew more feeble, the laughter in the theater rose to fantastical proportions.
As the curtains closed on act one, audience members picked themselves up to freshen up and grab concessions. It seemed rather ordinary, right? Wrong. One by one, the circus members appeared from either the upper levels, from backstage and, in some extreme cases, sidled right up next to the crowd to interact and improvise all within character. “Beyond the Ring” has its foot on the gas pedal for the entire performance. What is initially two acts suddenly morphs into a nonstop cavalcade of immersive theater. While one character doled out a monologue about the ethics of gaslighting, another shimmied their way high up on the scaffolding where they sat for minutes on end. The conclusion to this pageantry is a simple repelling from ceiling to floor, followed by a nonchalant shrug toward the audience.
“Beyond the Ring” is frustrating in this way; it wants to blur the lines of what a circus can be, but it also uses the audience as a tool to exploit it. Some elements drag on without any point, leaving the viewers to try to pick up and solder together a seminal coherence. Perhaps there is no point at all, and the show is meant to be enjoyed in all its blistering confusion. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we are all the clowns.