If there is a more seductive theatrical creation onstage in Chicago right now than Molly Brennan's Madame Barker, I don't want to know. The ringmistress of the action-packed and sensation-filled "500 Clown and the Elephant Deal," Madame Barker is riveting from the tips of her deep purple hair to the soles of her calf-high leather boots. I think I'm in love.
500 Clown is a group that uses circus techniques to create risky physical theater, incorporating the influence of Bertolt Brecht's "Man Is Man," improvisation and John Fournier's songs. Brennan and the rest of the fearless cast (Adrian Danzig, Paul Kalina, Matt Hawkins, and Jessica Hudson) are Madame Barker and her helpers. At first it seems it will be an evening of songs, but things get stranger and stranger as the night goes on, as people find themselves taking on many identities, battles rage and the entire affair devolves into chaos.
It is, to be sure, chaotic. Clarity and coherence of theme and plot are hard to find, and by the last 25 minutes or so, the show began to feel a little drawn out; director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig may need to shape the onstage work a little more aggressively. Still, the caveats pale beside the staggering work done by the ensemble. All five cast members have impressive circus skills — they climb scaffolding, vault around on ropes, and tumble all over — but the show is the opposite of the slick spectacle usually implied by the word "circus." It's proudly messy, defiantly focused on what these extraordinary bodies can do, and who they are. The cast, aided by the band and the wonder-filled design, has created an experience that left me dazed, shaken up and exhilarated. It's all too rare that theater accomplishes what this show does: bypassing the mind and going straight for the guts.