The circus tent is Neo's matrix and Alice's rabbit hole-on the other side, reality is twisted on its head.
Canada brought the world Cirque du Soleil. But only San Diego has the Fern St. Circus, which stages a new production each spring. This year, artistic director Cheryl Lindley heads up the theme of Alice in Circusland.
"It's been a constant fascination to me how that one story continues to affect us," Lindley says of Lewis Carroll's novel, Alice in Wonderland. "From movies like The Matrix to classic rock songs, it's there in the background."
She pauses, then quotes Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" to make her point. "I thought it would be fun to explore the story in a circus form," she says.
The show, running at Balboa Park from May 21 through 30, is populated with the characters of Carroll's novel. The Mad Hatter. Chesire Cat. That bong-toting worm thing.
Sure, Alice has been Disney-fied and stripped of the more mature social realities that Carroll intended. But Lindley stresses Alice in Circusland isn't just geared towards the younger set.
"It's a good family show... but it will also appeal to young single types," she predicts. "There's plenty of tongue-in-cheek."
Four females will play Alice in various stages of growth-including a stilt walker as Big Alice. Lindley says there will also be "six chiffon artists [aerialists] and a lot of surprises, plus the usual jugglers, acrobats and so on."
Lindley has been with Fern St. for 13 years, the result of a late-blooming love of circus life.
"I was a painter and a dancer," she explains. "My dance partner was making money doing some clowning, and he was always arguing with his female clown partner." Seeing the dysfunctional clown relationship and a chance to make a few bucks, Lindley offered to take the female clown's place. She took classes, and discovered that it beat the hell out of painting.
"I went from being an art snob and creating shows that 20 people turned up to," she says, "to playing before packed houses with a routine that includes being a human piñata suspended three feet in the air. It was the best lifestyle change I ever made."
All of this year's Fern St. performers are from the area, the direct result of the organization's community outreach program, which holds free Monday evening classes where children and adults can learn the circus arts.
"One of our trainers is a seventh generation circus performer, originally from Italy," Lindley explains. "Now we have a situation where some of the performers in the program came here as kids to our after-school program and then went pro and have returned to San Diego."
When the day-to-day business of directing is complete, Lindley will nightly make herself over as Columbina, Fern St.'s star clown, a role she also performs with the international El Circo. One of her personal favorites, however, is the Lira act-"a circular trapeze suspended 30 feet in the air... something which has never been seen in our circus"-starring two of Lindley's nieces. (Circuses have a long and venerated tradition of nepotism.)
Lindley explains that what began as a lark has now become her labor of love. In the past few weeks, she and Fern St. have performed in National City, San Marcos, San Ysidro and City Heights-all as warm-ups for the 12 nights at Balboa Park.
"It's tough funding a U.S. arts organization these days," Lindley says.
"But we have a lot of heart and spirit. Like our excellent Cheshire Cat-Corky. I guarantee that you will smile for a week after seeing our show." ©
Fern Street Circus runs May 21-30 at Balboa Park. $6-$12. 619-235-9756