It’s rare that a home grown circus manages to blend personality, technical wizardry, and just the right touch of San Francisco weirdness. In The Tree of Smoke from Circus Automatic promises to do all three, and it's being performed in an intriguing theater many of us have likely never seen before – The Great Star Theater in Chinatown.
In The Tree of Smoke has been described by the show's producer, Fleeky Flanco, as "a circus show set in the world of Blade Runner directed by David Lynch, with some non sequitur humor thrown in." And while David Lynch isn't actually involved here, what we have instead are a semi-nude aerial straps dance, a sexy crawdad number (you just have to see it), and two hand-balancing acts from Flanco. There is also a contortionist who shoots a bow and arrow with her feet — while standing on her hands.
Flanco says there are themes of rejuvenation in both the show and the venue. The Great Star is well known among Chinatown residents of a certain age, but was left in a state of severe disrepair for decades. There have been various efforts to rebrand the theater in recent years, but so far, nothing has stuck. When I stopped by back in April, going inside felt like stepping back in time. The seats and the air were slightly musty, and the stage was decorated with red and yellow spheres that hung from the ceiling. Random piles of junk mingled with old signs written in Chinese in the wings and backstage.
Flanco said he sees a direct connection between bringing back a beat up old theater, and trying to create an economically-viable circus show from scratch. Both projects raise the question of how valuable art is at a time when space is at a premium. Flanco said the problems the city’s artists face are like a "tree of smoke," entangling them in a maze of bureaucracy, evictions, and depleted bank accounts.
“This show is about realizing you’re in the tree of smoke and finding the door to escape,” he said. “I think that’s something we can all relate to.”
Image courtesy of Circus Automatic
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