Gone are the days when a mere trick would satisfy -- a peep for a penny oddity at a sideshow.
People want whole worlds, the genesis of which Cirque du Soleil has made into an industry, something fantastic and whole, like diving underwater or journeying to the moon, in which the viewer achieves the same suspension as the viewed. In Circus Automatic's In the Tree of Smoke, running through the month of June at the Great Star Theatre, the execution of thoroughly astonishing tricks are only the occasions for the development of fleeting moods and worlds that captivate, again and again, only to wormhole viewers breathlessly into another strange and wonderful dimension.
Part of the magic of the transformation is the Great Star Theatre itself, a cinema dating to the 1920s that once exclusively showed films from Hong Kong. Tucked in the narrow, densely variegated, zigzagged streets of Chinatown, the location is a reminder of the history of the exotic outsider in the city of San Francisco, a product of social and political exclusion that resulted in the cultivation of a concentrated habitat for others kept separate and different and made to define their own means of survival and of beauty.
The resources are minimal -- no smoke machines here -- but the effects are extravagant; a simple set of metallic balloons takes on the hot glow of whatever color shines on them in the grandiose proportions of a Jeff Koons sculpture. Though the cavernous auditorium is kept inhospitably dark at the show's opening, with the screening of a documentary-style film on copying, originality, and counterfeiting, the rise of the curtain initiates a sinuous dance by Katie Scarlett behind a lacy cut-out screen in front of a spotlight that is a bit reminiscent of the famed Yang Liping's Moonlight, a seed sprouting under the eerie glow of the moon.
The mood shifts in minutes to our dystopian present with the Beckett-style entrance of acid-haired Fleeky Flanco zooming in defiantly on a shopping cart that he soon swaps out for a metallic pipe (called a Chinese barrel in the program, it could be a cleaned up drainpipe) in which he repeatedly confines himself, escapes, and balances upon. The whole act seems an exhortation not to consume but to create, to embrace constraint as a form of liberation, a message repeated in Chloe Axelrod's chair act, which develops from a slouch in front of a television into a series of hair-raising balances.
To list every moment of wonder would make a menagerie of the six performers of Circus Automatic, yet several deserve particular mention. Serpentine Inka Siefker tucking her head neatly into the small of her own back as her legs arch over to shoot an arrow into a target with her toes is a feat without adjectives. Scarlett soars on silks, imprinting her calligraphic image as firmly as a wax seal, even as she spins gyroscopically, threatening to fly upwards as much as gravity wills a fall. Bree Rock brings a Fosse-like, minimalistic shrug to an indulgence that can only be described as crawfish burlesque. Flanco is a builder straight from the mind of William Blake, stacking up towers of bricks as he balances, apparently suspended from the sky, in a handstand, then demolishing his edifices, leaving only his body in its improbable upright-down position. Axelrod sweeps the whole house and perhaps the universe beyond into her ecstatic orbit in the closing number on a suspended hoop. Yet the evening could also be encapsulated in a quiet moment from the liquid dance of Micah Walters, when he crouched down and jutted his scapulae towards the sky, indicating human wings.
Circus Automatic presents In the Tree of Smoke at 8 p.m. through June 27 at the Great Star Theatre (636 Jackson). Tickets are $25; circusautomatic.com.