Next Theatre Company

Charles G. Finney’s 1935 novel The Circus of Dr. Lao is about magic. Not silly, la-la magic, not the phony stuff Ringling Brothers manufactures, but the stuff you wish the circus had–odd, unnerving magic that’s sickeningly real. Finney, who was an infantryman in China in the 1920s, won a “Most Original Novel” award from the American Booksellers Association in 1936, and the book inspired an unsuccessful Chicago staging in the 1950s. In 1964 it was adapted into an absolutely uninspired film starring Tony Randall. Turning Finney’s tale into a one-man show, as actor Tom Mula and director Dale Calandra have done for this Next Theatre production, offers a formidable challenge: capturing the magic of The Circus of Dr. Lao is like trying to bottle moonlight.

At times Mula comes oh-so-close. Unfortunately he undermines these moments by giving less than heartfelt readings of the more pedestrian, strictly human scenes leading up to them. The nice gal in me wants to cut him some slack. After all, it’s not easy playing some 15 different characters in less than two hours. But Mula is a seasoned and highly skilled actor and shouldn’t be coddled. He seems to treat his characters unfairly, lavishing attention on the interesting circus creatures and throwing only a contemptuous glance at the townsfolk. As a result the show doesn’t really heat up until the second act, and the point of the story gets buried under Mula’s bad attitude.

The Circus of Dr. Lao is about what happens when the people in a small town–Abalone, Arizona–come into contact with genuinely magical creatures: a sexually enticing satyr, a Medusa, a 2,000-year-old magician, a werewolf, a mermaid, a sea serpent, and of course Dr. Lao himself. In the first 20 minutes Mula transforms himself into almost every person in Abalone who goes to the circus, from an uptight English teacher, Miss Agnes Birdsong, to Quarantine Inspector Number One to the whole Rogers family to a couple of cops.

But he runs through each character so quickly that he sometimes mixes up their personalities, so that the little Rogers girl starts sounding an awful lot like her father, Quarantine Inspector Number One seems quite a bit like Ignorant-Looking Cop, and so on. If Mula had slowed down a bit and given these characters the attention they deserve, he could have created a fascinating and even magical evening of theater, simply by transforming himself from one townsperson to the next. But when he takes on their characters, he seems to mock them. He doesn’t seem to like them, so why should we? And if there’s no reason to like them, why pay attention?

Well, pay attention, because later on Dr. Lao’s creatures enter the scene. Finally there are some fascinating, magical moments, as when the satyr seduces Miss Birdsong, dancing around her, playing a mesmerizing tune on his pipes, enticing her with his animal scent. Or when Dr. Lao talks about the mermaid he captured, how he plans to return her to the sea someday, how he hopes she’ll turn and wave at him as she swims away. This is the magic of Finney’s story, and it lies not only in the fact that he makes such mystical creatures seem real but also in his ability to conjure up some very delicate human emotions.

Best is the conversation between the sea serpent and Mr. Edwin, the newspaper proofreader. As the serpent, Mula stands under a ladder as if caged, sliding up and down the rungs, growing more and more angry as he talks about the sex with his female mate he can no longer have now that he’s caged in the circus. This is one of the few scenes in which Mula has complete control of the transitions between the two characters, and it works incredibly well. I’m inclined to think this is Calandra and Mula’s favorite scene–they seem to have rehearsed it extensively, examining every nuance, polishing it to perfection.

There are other enticing moments, but taken all together they don’t add up to a cohesive whole. Mula is quite captivating, for example, when Dr. Lao discusses his joyous discovery of a dog made purely out of vegetable matter. But Mula and Calandra don’t make optimal use of this scene: it seems that it (or the mermaid scene) should be the play’s climax, because Lao talks about beauty, purity, and magic. But these two tender bits float around in a sea of derisively delivered narration and disrespected characters–so much so that, despite some magical moments, it’s difficult to understand why Mula and Calandra chose to stage this novel at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Foreman.