Last week I got to see Underman by Cirkus Cirkör at the Theatre National. If you want the short version, it’s quite good. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) if you want to see it now, you’re going to have to make your way to Europe, as the boys have returned home and are performing in a bunch of cities in Sweden and Düsseldorf for the rest of the summer. The basic schtick of Underman is three single guys who happen to be circus performers and recently single get together in order to do their own performance without any Y-chromosome challenged people.
As they are fond of pointing out, in the circus very frequently there are two person gymnastics where a Y-chromosome challenged person is lifted, held and supported by a guy. That guy is known as an Underman. In poking around the internet, I also discovered that Underman was was also a term from Nazi Germany used to describe all the people they didn’t like and thought were beneath them. When they’re in Düsseldorf are they going to change the title? Or has sufficient time passed? Either way, Mattias Andersson, Peter Åberg and Matias Salmenaho are anything but inferior.
For the most part there are two things which form the foundation of the performance. Kettlebells and monologues. I wasn’t able to see whether they used 12kg, 16kg or 24 kg kettlebells, but would guess that the 16kg versions were more than sufficient. At various points during the show all three of them did (both solo and together) some kind of act that wasn’t juggling because each of them only controlled one kettlebell and they didn’t transfer the kettlebells between them but for all intents and purposes looked like juggling one item.
The second unifying thing was that each of the performers did a monologue that kind of explained their situation, ie why and how they became to be single. While I’m certain there was a bunch of stuff borrowed from their real lives, this was the one circus show I saw where there were really and truly characters, character development and it wouldn’t be a stretch to pull a fancy two-bit word out of my hat and call them thespians.
In between and around all of those were some, what I call, “man-lifts” where one guy picks up another guy (or two) and uses him (or them) as props which then naturally lead to a “man tosses”. Some straw balancing, both with and without Rubic’s Cube solving. Some serious juggling (six clubs behind the back!) And something in a large and heavy hoop that
you I thought could only be done by tiny adolescent women.
If I’m going to get nit-picky and find something to complain about it would have to be the seats. For some reason or another we were seated up in the balcony of the Theatre National (when given free tickets, I find that it’s really tough to throw a tantrum in public and insist on 8th row center on the floor, so I kind of politely say thank you and don’t worry about it too too much) and no matter which way I leaned, forward, backward, left or right it was absolutely impossible to see the whole stage from where I was sitting. But then about halfway through the show Mr Andersson, Mr. Åberg and Mr. Salmenaho addressed the audience and suggested (actually insisted) that everyone introduce themselves to the strangers sitting next to them and then go and switch seats with someone else.
So we were able to find better seats, on the center aisle, if I remember correctly one row closer, and my view was still blocked. Worse still in these new and improved seats, my companion was forced to lean as far away from me as possible in order to see the show, so instead of the two of us looking like an “A” if viewed from in front or behind as we leaned together to see what was happening on the stage, we looked like a “V” and it occurred to me that she might have well as come with the guy sitting on the other side as opposed to me (I unfortunately was on the aisle, if you remember, so it wasn’t like I could pretend I had come with someone else…) So it wasn’t the seats we were given, I think it’s just the seats at Theatre National. It’s an old theater, and when it was built people were smaller. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”
But that’s enough of a digression, let’s see if I can focus back on Underman. The thing that was so cool about it was that for something like the first time, I was able to feel empathy for the characters in a circus show who weren’t clowns. From that I’m almost prepared to go the mat about how Underman is more play-like (as in Tennessee Williams, not Lego) than anything I’ve ever seen. But then I just spent over an hour and half searching through the Cirkus Cirkör website looking for anything that would further my thesis, and struck out on every front. I seem to have some memory somewhere that I saw something mentioning a writer and other titles that are not normally associated with the circus, but I’m having a whale of a time finding it again, which probably means that I imagined it. Pity.
I should also make mention of the music, all of the performers play at least one instrument, and while on the surface this seems like a good thing, to my ear they were competent but not up to the caliber of the rest of the performance. They played Suspicious Minds
but there was something missing. At the time I felt it could have used an accordion solo, but now I’m not so certain. For the most part it was used as background, except for Suspicious Minds. Thinking out loud here, maybe incorporating more music into the performance, a la Suspicious Minds, or incorporating the instruments into the act (juggling six clubs while playing the accordion!).
Then after the show was over, we were invited to stick around for a performance by Andreas Tengblad (the one guy in the troupe who was a musician and not a circus performer) and Anna Ahnlund, which while not bad, suffered because there were only 30 people in the audience and no matter what they did, after Underman, it was going to be a let down. Next time, I would strongly urge them to perform before Underman as an opening act. It would be much more favorably received.
Prior to seeing Underman I had never really contemplated anything about Swedish Circuses. After seeing it, I’m definitely going to keep my eye on it, as if other circus companies from Sweden are half as good as Cirkus Cirkör then run, don’t walk to the box office next time you hear that their coming to town.